Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Touch wood

The idea that wood should be touched when something which might tempt misfortune is said is widespread, but not apparently old, having been first recorded in its present form in 1877 [1].

In 1913 it was noted: ‘Many educated people habitually “touch wood” if they have given vent to some expression of satisfaction over their own wealth or fortune …  If the trick were omitted, the speaker would probably feel uncomfortable’ [2].

In an article ‘by a Criminologist’ in the Daily Mail of 4 November 1927, it was reported that ‘A deal of good-natured amusement has been caused by the action of Mr Winston Churchill in lifting the flag that covered his table and touching wood, during his speech at Wandstead, prophesying a trade revival.’

In 1991 a woman attending a conference in Oxford recalled: ‘I remember how superstitious people were during the last war; you were forever touching wood, hoping things would turn out [well].’

The British Heart Foundation included in its 1995 Christmas Mail Order Catalogue a £5.95 ‘touch wood brooch’: ‘We touch a wooden surface as a gesture to bring luck so what better way to ensure you always have that surface than with our “Touch Wood” Brooch?  Made using hand-cut, sanded and polished off-cuts of English yews and mounted on a presentation card with envelope.’

On 15 and 19 February 2002 The Times discussed ‘Why do we “touch wood” to ward off bad luck?’.  Three correspondents believed that this was due to ‘the ancient Catholic custom to touch the crucifix – the wood of he cross – in moments of real trouble’  A fourth correspondent suggested that ‘The answer lies in our distant pagan past when, because of it being an evergree the yew [Taxus baccata] tree was considered magical and charmed.  It therefore became an object of pagan worship … the wood of yew was thought to ward off evil spirits, and so the practice of carrying a piece of yew became commonplace; to touch that piece of yew kept you safe in the presence of evil or bad luck.’

It’s said that the practice of touching wood is well known in Spain; how widespread is it elsewhere?

1. I. Opie & M. Tatem, 1989. A Dictionary of Superstitions: 449; S. Roud, 2003, The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain & Ireland: 484.

2. E.M. Wright, 1913. Rustic Speech and Folk-lore: 230.

Images:  main, wooden herbarium cabinets, believed to have been made to hold the collections of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), in the Natural History Museum, South Kensington, London; 1860s wooden pews, Croydon Minster, London Borough of Croydon, both photographed November 2021.