Maybe taking a ride in a hot air balloon is on your bucket list, and that’s great! But why is it that ten years ago, no one talked about bucket lists, and now everyone does? What happened?

Well, as you probably know, a movie happened. The popular 2007 film The Bucket List with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman not only popularized the phrase – the movie’s screenwriter, Justin Zackham, created it. This was a debated point for a while, but is generally accepted now; no one has turned up a genuine usage of the phrase that predates the movie.

Of course, “bucket list” grows out of the familiar phrase, “kick the bucket”, which has been around since the 18th Century at least, and has always meant “dying”, although no one is really completely sure why.

There are three main theories about why kicking the bucket means dying:

  • In a suicide-by-hanging, the victim might stand on a bucket and kick it away.
  • Slaughtered pigs were suspended from a wooden beam known as a “bucket”, and might kick and struggle.
  • A Catholic receiving last rites might kick away a bucket of holy water placed at their feet.

Hmm, (1) seems the most plausible to me. What do you think?

In any case, as with many popular phrases, we say “kick the bucket” all the time without really thinking about why we say it. And now the same is true of “bucket list”, which has shifted its meaning a little in the decade of its existence.

In the movie, Nicholson and Freeman are both terminally ill and try to have as many of the experiences on their list as they can before they kick the bucket.

People still use the phrase in this way, but the meaning has been extended (and made less morbid!) to include any list of things you want to accomplish during a certain period of time. If you’re in college, you might have a bucket list of stuff that is only meaningful to do while you are in college.

President Obama was asked about his second term bucket list, and responded that he had a list that rhymed with bucket list. Oh. I get it. Pretty funny there, Mr. President!

It is certainly true that the original definition of “bucket list” might be a little uncomfortable to think about. It is a longstanding principle of marketing that unless you are selling caskets or life insurance, it is in bad taste to refer to the customer’s possible death.

But for some reason, the general idea of a bucket list, even without that specific phrase attached, seems to have been “in the air” in the early 2000s.

The popular book series from Quintessence Editions Ltd., 1001 [Things] You Must [Experience] Before You Die, actually kicked off with 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die in 2003, four years before The Bucket List was released in movie theaters.

There are now 21 books in that series, covering beers, gardens, songs, video games, and golf holes among other topics. Who has time to die? We’ve all got at least 1001 x 21 things to do – we’ll need to live until we’re 800 years old!

So the idea of the bucket list is now stronger on the list than the bucket – it’s not about dying, it’s about things you want to do bad enough that you’ll put them on a list so you can check them off. A motivational tool, a life-hack, and a heck of a lot of fun.