Diluting the Bucket List

By Maeve Maddox

The idiom “to kick the bucket,” meaning “to die,” has been used in English since the eighteenth century.

The term “bucket list” makes its earliest appearance on the Ngram Viewer in 1962, forty-five years before it was popularized by the movie The Bucket List (2007).

A “bucket list” is a list of things that a person hopes to experience or achieve before dying. In the movie, a character played by Morgan Freeman is diagnosed with lung cancer and makes such a list.

Less than a decade has passed since the movie popularized the term, and already it has dwindled into a mere synonym for “to-do list.”

A “to-do list” is a list of tasks that need to be completed during a period of time. A typical daily to-do list might look like this:

1. cut grass
2. pick up cleaning
3. take cat to vet
4. play basketball
5. renew library book

An advertising campaign called “Summer Bucket List” alerted me to the fact that the term “bucket list” is being used as a synonym for “to-do list.” The ads show people drinking beer and engaging in ordinary summer activities. The “bucket list” in the context of the ads is simply a list of outdoor activities to be fitted into one’s schedule before the end of summer.

The same day I saw one of the “summer bucket list” ads, I watched a rerun of Bones (television crime series) and heard two characters discuss goals to be achieved before the age of thirty as “a bucket list.” I suppose this use could be argued as being metaphoric: “life after thirty equals death.”

Here are some examples in which “bucket list” seems to be overkill:

But don’t let high school pass you by—be sure to make the most of your last days before college by creating your own senior year bucket list full of things you want to do or accomplish by graduation day. —Huffington Post.

Back when my hubby and I first got married almost 7 years ago, we had some fairly standard items on our “before baby” bucket list. —Maternity advice blog.

To help you take these last months [of college] by storm, we’ve compiled the ultimate bucket list of things you’ve been meaning to do since freshman year. —MTV site.

Write yourself a marriage bucket list to ensure that you and your spouse’s first year together is one full of fun, love and laughter!—Wedding advice site.

It was inevitable that “bucket list” would morph into “list of things to be done before a particular event—not necessarily dying—takes place.”

To me, the use of “bucket list” in such contexts sounds creepy, especially when the terminal event is something joyous, like the birth of a baby.

Related post:
“Pushing Up Daisies” and Other Euphemisms for Death

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3 Responses to “Diluting the Bucket List”

  • ApK

    Yeah, this is one of those things.
    If the “30 equals death” was actually on the mind of the author, ok. That’s like staging a fake funeral at a bachelor party. I get it.
    But I suspect that most of the writers cited have no clue what the term is supposed to mean. They heard it used describing a list of some kind, so they apes it without understanding. That is the kind of thoughtless dilution of language we must militantly resist! To arms!

  • Jake Marek

    I’ve never encountered anything like the examples cited. Bucket List has always meant “Things To Do Before i Kick the Bucket.” Looking over a few of them, I infer that they seem hyperbolically satirical but others merely show up the writers’ ineptitude.

    I sincerely hope this doesn’t turn into a “decimate” situation – – where if enough people abuse a specific literary term, popular demand will in fact corrupt it into acceptable use.

  • thebluebird11

    I totally get your point (all of you) but like many other things in my life, maybe I am just too old and tired of fighting certain battles, and this is one I would not fight. If people want to use “bucket list” in these fashions, I understand what they’re saying; they are making a list of things/places to do/see before a DEADline. In that sense, it IS a bucket list; THEY are not dead, but their time will have run out all the same…the sand will be in the bottom of the timer, the bell will have rung, the gate will have closed, the proctor will have called “pencils down!” I would move on and not get my panties in a knot over this.

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