Among the comments I get about this column I am often asked where I get my ideas. While it would be tempting to say that I am endlessly curious (which I am), that I am well read (perhaps, but there is always far more to read), and that I have unique insights (which is highly debatable), the truth is that my wife, Barbara – wittingly or unwittingly – often provides the material I need to compose a column. Several events from this past week provide a wonderful example of her assistance.
The other night, I was startled by a rather loud bang as I was standing in the kitchen rinsing some dishes. I turned to the direction of the noise and saw my wife by the garbage can inside the back door. She quickly explained that she had inadvertently “kicked the can.”
“Better that than kicking the bucket,” I replied.
After a moment while we each finished the tasks we were pursuing, I said, “I wonder where the phrase ‘kick the bucket’ comes from?”
“Well, sweetheart,” she replied, “I think you should find out and write it in your column.”
Let me start by telling you the popular theory of the “kick the bucket” phrase origin – which is completely false. Let me warn you ahead of time that both the false and real origins are rather gruesome.
Supposedly, individuals interested in committing suicide, hung a noose and then stood on a bucket so they could slip it around their necks. When the noose was secured, they would “kick” the bucket away and then hang suspended until they suffocated and died.
While this might sound plausible the reality is that there is absolutely no citation that confirms this origin. And, when you stop to consider this theory, why would one need or use a bucket? Why not a chair or table or stool?
So here’s the real story: back in England in the 1500s, bucket also referred to the beam, bar or yoke that was used to suspend something (visualize the farm maiden carrying a pail of water on each end of a bar supported on her shoulders). Even the wooden frame that animals were hung from for slaughter was called a bucket.
Thus, the use of the word “bucket” in the phrase “kick the bucket” refers to the beam that someone was hung from, even though this usage of the word is now dead (pardon the pun).
As for the “kick” portion of the phrase, this refers to the reflexive kicking action of someone who is being hanged (the gallows, which snapped the neck and killed someone instantly, came along later).
On another evening this past week, Barb passed me her newly printed business cards, which I dutifully admired, before noting that it read “Barbara Grutzmacher” and immediately underneath said “Teller” (Barb now works part-time in a local bank).
“I wonder why they call them bank ‘tellers’?” I wondered aloud.
“Well, hon’,” Barb replied, “I think you should find out and then you will have something else for your column.”
In order to understand why bank tellers are called tellers we need to go all the way back to where the word came from: the Old English word tellan. This gets interesting right away because the meaning of the word tellan was to account, calculate, consider or enumerate.
After a period of time the word was shortened to tell and it is at this stage the word took on a second meaning: to relate or convey, as in a story.
More time passes and the second meaning supplanted the original meaning – to the point of the original meaning disappearing from usage. Except that before this happens, those employees in the banks who stand behind those little windows and cash our checks, take our deposits, etc. were labeled “tellers” following from the original meaning of the word.
So when we refer to a certain bank employee as a teller we are actually using a linguistic artifact or fossil because the meaning of the word no longer corresponds to the present day definition and usage.
Obviously, in each case I related my findings to Barb, but I lingered longer on the “teller” portion. As I pointed out how rife the possibilities were for witticisms and other bon mots involving linguistic artifact and fossil in my column, my wife set down the magazine she was reading, looked at me fixedly, and said, “Remember how in your column about closing the bookstore you mentioned that you were looking forward to spending more time with me? Well, have fun with this next column but realize that soon you may be spending a lot of that newfound time alone.”
I think I will take a pass on this one, folks.