Part 3.  Enjoy!

Knock on wood

Meaning: The phrase used by people who rap their knuckles on a piece of wood hoping to stave off bad luck. In the UK the phrase ‘touch wood’ is used – often jokingly by tapping one’s head. The phrases are usually used when one is already experiencing some good fortune and hope that it will continue – e.g. “I’ve been winning on every race – touch wood”.

Origin: The derivation may be the association that wood and trees have with good spirits in mythology, or with the Christian cross. It used to be considered good luck to tap trees to let the wood spirits within know you were there. Traditions of this sort still persist in Ireland. See also – the darling buds of May.

The British version – touch wood, had an earlier Latin version used when touching wood – absit omen!, meaning ‘far be that omen from us’. This dates from at least the early 17th century, when it is quoted by Heywood. It isn’t clear when touch wood began to be used. It must have been well-known by 1849, when The Boy’s Own Book published the rules of a children’s game that derived from the phrase:

“This game is sometimes called ‘Touch-iron’ or ‘Touch-wood’; in these cases the players are safe only while they touch iron or wood, as may be previously agreed. They are liable to be touched only when running from one piece of wood or iron to another.”

Knock on wood – the American version, is known from the early 20th century. For example, The Indianapolis Star, September 1908:

“He is a promising looking youngster, and once we get on velvet (knock on wood!) the New York fans will get a chance to see him in action. When that time comes (knock on wood again!) it is more than likely that he will not disappoint.”  Note: ‘on velvet’ means in a position of advantage, especially regarding betting on sporting events.

Caught red-handed

Meaning: To be caught in the act of committing a misdemeanour, with the evidence there for all to see.

Origin: The Red Hand has long been a heraldic and cultural symbol of the northern Irish province of Ulster. One of the many myths as to its origin is the tale of how, in a boat race in which the first to touch the shore of Ulster was to become the province’s ruler, one contestant guaranteed his win by cutting off his hand and throwing it to the shore ahead of his rivals. The potency of the symbol remains and is used in the Ulster flag, and as recently as the 1970s a group of Ulster loyalist paramilitaries named themselves the Red Hand Commandos.

Red-handed doesn’t have a mythical origin however – it is a straightforward allusion to having blood on one’s hands after the execution of a murder or a poaching session. The term originates, not from Northern Ireland, but from a country not far from there, i.e. Scotland. An earlier form of ‘red-handed’, simply ‘red hand’, dates back to a usage in the Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I, 1432.

Red-hand appears in print many times in Scottish legal proceedings from the 15th century onward. For example, this piece from Sir George Mackenzie’s A discourse upon the laws and customs of Scotland in matters criminal, 1674:

“If he be not taken red-hand the sheriff cannot proceed against him.”

The earliest known printed version of ‘red-handed’ is from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, 1819:

“I did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag.”

Scott was an avid student of Scottish history and folklore, which he relentlessly mined for inspiration in his novel writing. He is certain to have heard ‘redhand’ before writing Ivanhoe. The step from ‘redhand’ to ‘redhanded’ isn’t large, so calling Scott the originator of the term is perhaps being over generous to him. Nevertheless, the enormous popularity of his books certainly brought ‘red-handed’ to a wide audience and, without him, the term might now be long forgotten.

16th and 17th century Scottish sources provide various examples of ‘apprehended redhand’, ‘taken with redhand’ etc. but the earliest known citation of the currently used ‘caught red-handed’ phrase is in the English novelist George Alfred Lawrence’s work Guy Livingstone; or, ‘Thorough’, 1857:

My companion picked up the object; and we had just time to make out that it was a bell-handle and name-plate, when the pursuers came up – six or seven “peelers” and specials, with a ruck of men and boys. We were collared on the instant. The fact of the property being found in our possession constituted a ‘flagrans delictum’ – we were caught “red-handed.”

 

Flag of Ulster

Flag of Ulster

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