Bucket List: The Story of a Word

bucket listFor word lovers, it’s often fun to trace (find or discover) the history of a word. I frequently stop at the Online Etymology Dictionary – etymology is the study of the beginnings, history, and changes in the meanings of words – to do just that.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal tells the story of a word – bucket list – that first appeared just a few years ago but has already become very popular. How popular? I received more than 63,000,000 search results when I googled it (searched for it using Google).

In the popular 2007 movie Bucket List, the word meant a list of things that you haven’t done, but want to do before you die. The movie was about two men who had terminal (an illness that causes death) cancer and tried to do as much as they could before they died. The movie is how most people first learned about the word.

To understand where bucket list came from, you have to go back to an idiom – kick the bucket – that first appeared in 1785. You may have heard that one. If someone kicks the bucket, it means they died. There are several different ideas about where the idiom comes from, but no one really knows for sure.

In 1999, Justin Zackham, the man who wrote the movie, began a list that he called “Justin’s list of things to do before he kicks the bucket” – things to do before he dies. The name seemed too long, however, so he shortened it to “Justin’s bucket list.”

As Zackham’s bucket list grew, he decided that a bucket list would make a good story for a movie. He wrote the movie script (the written form of a movie), and when the movie was completed, everyone agreed that Bucket List was the best name for it.

When words become popular and a lot of people begin to use them, the way they use them often changes. Bucket list is no exception (it’s not different). Zackham first used it to describe the list of things he wanted to do before he died. But a few months ago, President Obama used it in a speech to refer to the things he wanted to do before the end of his presidency (time as president). As a result, the meaning of bucket list has already shifted (changed) to include the things someone wants to do before an important time in their life.

Let me make a prediction (say what will happen). I think that a lot of people will think that bucket list is a cool (fashionable, attractive) new word and want to use it. And they will use it in a variety of new ways – for example, to refer to any list of things that they need or want to do, what we call a to-do list. Some day you’ll be able look in a dictionary and see if I was right.

I’m wondering, what would you put on your own bucket list?

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach/tutor and creator of the Successful English web site.

Photo from irrevspeckay.

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13 Responses to Bucket List: The Story of a Word

  1. Dan says:

    Hello Warren.

    This was very interesting. I read it with great pleasure.
    I am afraid I can’t tell you guys my bucket list because it’s almost everything related to sexual things if I can say so.

    I am going to chew on this and come back later.

  2. emiliano says:

    Good very good indeed, who has not a Bucket List?
    I have one, of course, that´s the reason I want to learn and read music even how to play the piano.

    Nearly my Bucket List is completed as I have done lot of things I wanted to do before dying but
    not all.
    For instance I would like to travel just a little more till the point of being in New York and Moscu.
    I have a cat, but not a dog that I would like too, even I haven´t grandson or daughter but
    that is not at my hand.
    Along my life I have done by my own criterium, “My Way” as in the song, so yes my Bucket
    List it is nearly empty.

    Thank you Warren, nice words and better post as always, that´s your way too.


  3. emiliano says:

    Well, thinking on my bucket list and trying to find some other things I would like to
    do before it is quite difficult to find some one important.
    Being a son, brother, husband and father, having my married life full of love just
    the same as being a son, or a father, it is scarcely difficult to find more.

    Reading Dan´s post it makes me laugh and a smile it is in my face, sexual
    thing Dan?, you are not serious.
    By my side having my Cuca has been more than enough and not, that´s
    not my subject.
    Under my point of view or my way of doing things it has been more important to
    have an inmense love than lof of short different loves. Not thank you, that
    side of my bucket it is empty too, I have just what I wanted to find and I do think
    it is really difficult to success in this aspect of our life.
    My cup is full of love, so very sorry for you Dan if there is some aspect
    of your bucket list that has to be completed, but now seriously you really
    do nothing about the subject, or do you really do and we have not any
    news about it?
    Tell us please, you are among friends, your dear friends of the Blog.

    Great work Dan, you alway put some spices in the blog and I like it very


  4. Dan says:

    Hey Everyone.

    Me again. Even if today was a holiday here in Italy, I had to work and I am back at home now.

    Are you guys ready? I am going to surprise you.

    I am going to leave the bucket empty because the usefulness of the bucket is his emptiness.

    Did I surprise you guys? with this one I have earned 10 points, have I not?

    Just kidding, that’s not my stuff. That’s is from Lao Tzu.

    As I am getting some interest in philosophy, the other day I watched a video about eastern philosophy and I was hit by that gem.

    Seriously, I do not really know what to put on my bucket.

    I need to get better on self analysis, but I am almost sure that I was born with a degree of satisfaction that I do need and ask very little from life.

    Having been born with the gene of contentment, as everything, that is a blessing and a curse at the same time.

    It’s a blessing because you are in a state of perennial satisfaction, but a curse because you are static and one of the main driving force for action if boredom.

    Of course there are many others like curiosity.

    I kind of envy those who know what to do with their lives when still children. At 45 I still have to figure that out.

    I guess that I am going to think that over an add something over the next days.


  5. Dan says:


    That’s wouldn’t surprise me if one of these days we’ll see
    someone coming out with a new religion/organization or
    movement called: Bucketism. I am in.
    We are going to follow the emptiness of the bucket.


  6. Dan says:

    Actually, I can start that.
    All of you out there, Lilly, Tania, put all
    your money in the magic bucket and we’ll see
    if it gets empty again.
    Emi put a few of your watches in there. The gold ones.

    If you guys don’t mind I am the bucket holder.


  7. Dan says:


    Just to say that the way we express that in Italian is with something like “dropping the skin” or “pulling one’s skin”

    Something along those lines. That’s my personal translation of “tirare le quoia” that someone else might have a problem with.

    Tirare means pulling.
    Quoia means leather of animals but it this case is used for our skin.


  8. peter says:

    Hi Warren
    Very charming story u got there.I watched the movie with my dad on the big screen. The movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. My dad is a big fan of Jack Nicholson. Well , he grew up with his movies. I ,myself, like Jack Nicholson too. he is funny but what I like most about him is his grinny smile.:) it is the burst of energy.
    My dad liked the movie very much!
    But ,I must say the movie didn’t get me.i mean I don’t like it much.however ,I like the message the movie is trying to get across -that is -don’t stand by ideally and watch life passing you by. As we live just once. You know , time is a commodity afforded once.
    I have to say the name of the movie came as catchy to me as well. I knew from the beginning the name was gonna catch on.
    But , I had no inkling that Mr president used it in a slightly different context.
    I like the way he runs with it.
    The essence of the word is intact yet its application widened.very clever Mr president.
    You know ,the expression has a nice ring to it.u know I can’t point my finger at anything. But ,all I can say is that the expression sticks with u. Once I heard it ,It went directly to my long term memory.I never felt the need to go back to the expression as a reminder.
    U know in the movie both characters are terminally ill.they hit it off immediately and became friends and then they set out to an adventure.



  9. Aecio Flavio Perim says:

    Well, does somenone know what kick the bucket mean? In Brazil, when you say somemnone has kicked the bucket you refer someone has made something wrong like a mess. When a cow kicks the bucket she spills out the milk which is not good for the milkman.

  10. Tania says:

    Hi! I have the same problem like last week.
    I can’t listen to the English lessons, and I do not know why.

  11. Dan says:

    Hey everyone.

    With Warren’s permission, I would like to share couple little events I had today.

    Nothing extraordinary, but you know, I live in a small town and this is what I see.

    Today, as I was walking through the alleys of my little town, I saw a little kid playing on his bike counting in English.
    he was like. “three four five six”
    I asked and said “Bravo! are you learning the numbers in English? (I was in teacher mode)
    And he replied “yes I do” I found that cute.

    My second story is about my three cats.
    There is a couple for Germany with a big lucid painted black BMW visiting here.
    Firsts days it was very sparkling clear, now it’s full of my cats’ dirty paws..hahahahahah
    I am so proud of them….this evening extra food.

    Ps, I have nothing against German people, it was the same if it was a car owned by anyone else from any country in the world.


  12. Dan says:

    Hi everyone

    As I said I am not going to put anything on my bucket list just because I like that feeling of stepping back and looking at the world and knowing that you can start anything at your own wish
    but you do not actually start anything.
    Does that make any sense?


  13. Nanda says:

    Hello everyone
    It`s weird if someone says that does not has already a bucket list in your life. I am not different from my colleagues, but I have a bucket list for sure.
    A lot of things I have dreamed to do before die like to travel to several countries and cultures around the world. Probably my bucket list is similar for another readers of this website, nonetheless, to travel is something so good for many people.
    Thank you.
    Have a nice day
    Best Wishes

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