I’ve just got round to reading Liza Picard’s Dr Johnson’s London, which I enjoyed very much. She says, ‘As I read my way through contemporary writers, a few words caught my eye.’ Among them is kick the bucket. I wish Mrs Picard had mentioned where she saw it, for the earliest citation in the dictionary is merely from Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), and he may well have read the phrase earlier.
Grose (c. 1731-91) was known as ‘a sort of antiquarian Falstaff. Immensely corpulent and jolly, he drank and joked his way round the British Isles, attracting a ‘rather coarse’ epigram from Burns, as the Dictionary of National Biography says. My copy of Burns gives this version, which doesn’t seem all that coarse. A note to it says that Grose ‘though he joined in the laugh, did not relish it’:
The devil got notice that Grose was a-dying,
So whip! At the summons, old Satan came flying;
But when he approach’d where poor Francis lay moaning,
And saw each bed-post with its burden a-groaning,
Astonish’d! confounded! cry’d Satan, ‘By God,
I’ll want him, ere I take such a damnable load!’
Grose died in earnest in the middle of dinner with his friend Nathaniel Hone in Dublin. He illustrated many of his own books of topography, and a newspaper of the time suggested that his epitaph should be: ‘Death put an end to his Views and Prospects.’
Apart from Grose, the earliest quotation in the Oxford English Dictionary for kick the bucket comes from 1806 in a volume called Tristia or The Sorrows of Peter by John Wolcot (1738-1819), who wrote under the name Peter Pindar:
There, Pitt had kicked the bucket; what a rout!
He made the people many an empty dish:
Our party were unwilling to cry out
But no one, to be sure, cries ‘Stinking Fish’.
A few pages on, Pindar writes that ‘Pitt resigned his boozing breath’. He was that sort of poet.
The bucket in question might not be the kind into which you milk cows, but rather the beam or yoke on which you carry things. There is, it seems, an Old French word buquet meaning a trebuchet or balance. The hypothesis is that a slaughtered pig is carried by the heels on a yoke or bucket; hence he is said to kick it. But the OED is not utterly convinced by this idea.