Q: I got this purported derivation of “kick the bucket” from my Shakespeare professor: If a prisoner in Elizabethan times wanted to end his life, he could make a noose from an article of clothing, stand on an inverted slop bucket, and kick the bucket. Well, it’s not as far out as some of the other fables one hears.
A: I’ve done a little checking of my own. It seems that there are two possible buckets in the phrase “kick the bucket,” but it’s uncertain which one gets kicked here.
In the late 1500s (when Shakespeare was writing and Elizabeth I was on the throne), “bucket” was a word for a beam or yoke on which something could be suspended. This usage may have come from the Old French buquet (a catapult or balance), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
A pig, for instance, was often hung by its heels from a beam (or “bucket”) before or just after slaughter, and thrashed about in its final spasms. I guess one could say that the dying pig was kicking the bucket.
A more recent reference in the OED, citing an undated “Mod. Newspaper,” says this sense of “bucket” was still being used in Norfolk “even in the present day.” (I assume the Norfolk mentioned was the English county.)
The other “bucket” is, of course, the receptacle. Although the OED says the etymology of this “bucket” is uncertain, it compares the word with the Old English buc, meaning a pail, a vessel, or a belly.
I suppose somebody contemplating suicide (or someone about to be executed) might indeed stand on an overturned bucket with a noose about his neck, then break his neck or strangle when the bucket was kicked away.
The first published citation for the expression in the OED comes from Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785): “To kick the bucket, to die.” Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell which bucket is referred to here.
The expression also appears in a collection of American proverbs from 1789, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, which agrees with the OED that the origin remains uncertain “despite much speculation.”
But Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English goes for the slaughterhouse explanation. So does Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, which calls the suicide theory “rather less likely.”