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The meaning and origin of the expression: Bucket list

Bucket list

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Bucket list'?

A list of things that a person wants to experience or achieve before they die.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Bucket list'?

Bucket ListFor some time after it was first coined, only people who feared their imminent death compiled a bucket list. More recently, since the expression has become more widely used, it just means 'a list of things that I would like to do someday'. Such a list typically includes:

  • See the Northern/Southern Lights.
  • Visit, The Grand Canyon, The Taj Mahal, The Great Wall of China...
  • Swim with dolphins.

The expression came into wide use in the language following the release of the film Bucket List, in December 2007.

The first authenticated use of the phrase is found in a UPI Newswire post on 29th June, 2006, which announced the film and, usefully for us, defined the meaning and origin of the expression:

Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman are set to star in ‘The Bucket List’, about two cancer patients... The two terminally ill men make a wish list of things they want to do before they kick the bucket - called the bucket list - then take a road trip.

It is quite possible that the expression existed as slang before the film's screenplay was written. If it did it can't have been coined long before 2006 as we were then in the Google era and any use of it online would now be easy to find, and there aren't any search results that point to unambiguous uses of the expression before that date.

If the origin is 99% established then the meaning must rate as 100%. The 'things to do before you kick the bucket' source for 'bucket list' is obviously correct.

There are references to a different meaning of 'bucket list' online and in print that pre-date 2006. These relate to a sorting algorithm called a Bucket Sort. This is typically implemented on a computer to sort items into alphabetical or numerical order. The resulting list is called a bucket list - clearly not the 'bucket list' that Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson had in mind.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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