Brow Beat

When Did People Start Saying “Bucket List”?

Jack Nicholson at ‘The Bucket List’ premiere, 2007.

Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

Update, May 29, 2015: executive editor Ben Zimmer considered the origins and evolution of the term bucket list in a May 29, 2015, Wall Street Journal column. According to Zimmer, (and word researcher Hugo van Kemenade), when used in this context, the phrase originated with Bucket List screenwriter Justin Zackham; the earlier usages mentioned in this column were misdated.

I love a cultural coincidence.

Two of the TV shows I watched last night mentioned bucket lists. On Glee, Kurt Hummel, all of 17, whipped out his iPhone and showed his boyfriend, Blaine, a few of the things he intends to do before he dies. (My favorite: “Arrive at school in a hot air balloon.”) On NCIS, Tony DiNozzo, shaken by a terrorist attack, became hyperaware of his own mortality and printed out a list that included more prosaic choices: “Date a Bond girl and/or Miss Universe. Develop a catch phrase. The luge.” When I tweeted about this, @magazinemama reminded me that on last week’s Parks & Recreation, doofus Andy was also working on a bucket list. His items included winning the lottery, making the best grilled-cheese sandwich ever, and remaking Kazaam (this time getting it right).


This got me wondering: Where did the term bucket list come from? Surely it didn’t originate with the Jack Nicholson/Morgan Freeman film from 2007 in which, to quote the Internet Movie Database, “Two terminally ill men escape from a cancer ward and head off on a road trip with a wish list of to-dos before they die.”

I turned to the newly released fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, but, sadly, it’s not included. Executive editor Steve Kleinedler told me that, although he’s been keeping an eye on the term, it needs a few more years in usage before it proves itself worthy of addition to the big book.

A quick search through Google Books suggests that though the phrase was popularized by the 2007 film, it was indeed used occasionally before Jack and Morgan hit the road. Its first application seems to have been in computer programming: e.g., “Guava compiler knows statically that there are no references from buckets inside of one bucket list to objects inside another.”


In 1993, the phrase showed up in a different context: a National Labor Relations Board report indicating agenda items that must be postponed (getting warmer): “The conferees were told that if comments or questions came up concerning bargainable issues or items that required more information, these matters should be placed in a ‘bucket list’ to indicate that they could not be considered at the conference.”


In 2004, the term was used—perhaps for the first time?—in the context of things to do before one kicks the bucket (a phrase in use since at least 1785) in the book Unfair & Unbalanced: The Lunatic Magniloquence of Henry E. Panky, by Patrick M. Carlisle. That work includes the sentences, “So, anyway, a Great Man, in his querulous twilight years, who doesn’t want to go gently into that blacky black night. He wants to cut loose, dance on the razor’s edge, pry the lid off his bucket list!”


Bonus cultural coincidence: Parkour has also cropped up in several TV shows of late—most recently Inspector Lewis (those wacky Oxford students!), New Girl, Happy Endings, and Work of Art. (It was on The Office, which usually lags behind the cultural zeitgeist—Scranton!—back in 2010.) Parkour’s origins are more straightforward. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, it derives from the French term parcours de combattant—literally, “combatant’s course,” or more loosely, obstacle course. It is also related to the Medieval Latin percursus, the past participle of percurrere, meaning to run through or rove.