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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

bucket list

(2000’s | journalese)

I’m not real up on popular culture, despite rubbing elbows with teenagers with modest regularity, so I will go ahead and explain this term for those who share my plight. “Bucket list” was popularized by a movie of the same title released in 2007. It refers to the goals you aim to achieve before you die — that is, kick the bucket. (“Kick the bucket” goes back to the eighteenth century, and its origins remain uncertain.) The film received plenty of publicity, starring as it did Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, and the phrase soon took root in the popular lexicon. According to one history of the term, it was first used in today’s sense in 2004, but the citation isn’t entirely convincing.

Not that the phrase was invented then; it had a previous life in engineering and computer science. My father, an electrical engineer, remembers using the phrase to denote instructions for placing integrated circuits on circuit boards to build this or that device. In computer science, a bucket is a storage place or buffer for disparate pieces of data that have a common feature important enough to warrant grouping them together. When you record the names and locations of the different buckets, presto! a bucket list. The term was also used by archeologists to mean an inventory of artifacts removed from a dig (also “basket list”), a surprisingly intuitive usage. “Bucket list” could also refer to a group of items set aside in a negotiation, for example — points to be considered later, or in a different phase of the discussion. None of these definitions was ordinary or widely understood. Now they never will be. The first three were strictly technical terms, and the fourth never took hold. Because it was unfamiliar to most of us, when the hype for the movie ramped up in 2006, reporters felt compelled to explain the phrase and its derivation. When the movie was released at Christmastime in 2007, reviewers followed suit. By 2008, most of us knew what it meant and why.

What we didn’t know was how. My research was not exhaustive, but I couldn’t find any sign that any of the two million or so reporters who covered the film ever thought to ask any of its creators how they arrived at “bucket list.” The story and screenplay were due to Justin Zackham, and Rob Reiner directed. There’s no reason to think Zackham doesn’t deserve credit for the coinage (or repurposing, as the kids today say), but did anyone ever ask him to expound on his language-changing idea? Here’s a new word that everyone is using all of a sudden, and it has an unusually unconvoluted path into our vocabulary. Not only that, there were only one or two people that had a plausible claim to originating it. How come no one asked them about it? Gee, Mr. Zackham, where did you come up with “bucket list”? For at least a few years before 2007, you can find citations of “life list” used to mean exactly the same thing, a term from birdwatching that used to denote a catalogue of every variety of bird one has sighted (I confess I don’t recall ever hearing it). “Wish list,” though much more common, is much less specific, lacking the urgency lent by death’s door. Other than that, I don’t know of another word for the phenomenon, old or new. So whoever came up with it did us all a favor.

There’s a tendency to believe that many new expressions come from movies or television, but in my experience it’s rare to find one that is both invented (or at least given what appears to be an entirely new definition) and popularized by a single film. Most new or newish expressions popularized by movies were definitely in use before the film came out. “Bucket list” may have been, but the evidence is very sparse and unconvincing. Other examples of film-borne expressions: “wingman,” “don’t go there,” “you’re toast,” “meltdown,” “perfect storm.” All had been sighted before appearing in the film that made them famous.

Thanks to my sister for nominating “bucket list” this week, and to Dad for pitching in with some old IEEE lore. The family that blogs together slogs together.

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