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I'm not sure I had even heard the term "bucket list" until the movie came out. I get the feeling though that the term long predates the movie. Can anyone identify how "bucket list" came to mean what it means to us today?

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It definitely predates the movie, and clearly derives from "kick the bucket" meaning to die. But where kick the bucket comes from is uncertain, although etymonline has some guesses – Jim Nov 4 '13 at 5:24
One should expect that "bucket list" meant what it means to us today, not "come to mean" that sometime midway. – Kris Nov 4 '13 at 7:33
@Kris so why suggest otherwise in your answer? – Jolenealaska Nov 4 '13 at 8:08
@Jim: Can you remember when/where you heard it before the film? Do you know if there's any existing evidence for it? Thanks! – Hugo Nov 4 '13 at 9:28
I agree with Jim, I've always thought that it comes from kick the bucket as in 'List of things to do before I kick the bucket > Bucket list'. It's a big jump, but it's also one of the only explanations that makes good sense. – Dom Nov 4 '13 at 19:08

6 Answers 6

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Bucket list

There's no known evidence bucket list was used as a "list of things to do before you die" before the movie.

The OED has bucket list from 29 June 2006, about the film "The Bucket List".

  • There's no evidence in Nexis of bucket list before 2006.
  • There's nothing in Usenet and Google Groups for "my bucket list" before the OED.
  • There's nothing relevant in Usenet (via Google Groups) for "bucket list" much before the OED. (Lots of unrelated programming bucket lists.)

I think it came from the movie, by scriptwriter Justin Zackham. The most likely origin is it comes from the phrase "to kick the bucket", meaning to die.


Here's a one-day antedating from Variety referring to the film (found via Usenet):

Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman are committed to star in “The Bucket List.”

Via the same Usenet group, a 16 June 2006 blogpost quoting a 11 June 2006 Usenet post referred to the script:

So it seems pretty solid that Scott is, in fact, not the author of The Bucket List.

But obviously the script had already been written and there'll be early script drafts somewhere.

Dubious claims

Slate Magazine searched Google Books and claimed a 2004:

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!”

But I think it's misdated. Carlisle's book may have been first published in 2004, but the two full view editions in Google Books are copyright 2003-2010 and 2003-2011. The phrase also appears in the author biography at the end of the book and it's not clear when that was written.

The phrase appears on the author's biography on his own website, but not in any of the pages I checked in the Internet Archive.

Also, a Wordwizard forum post claims a 9 November 2005 on a AP Images caption of actors in a scene from the movie, but it must be wrong seeing as the script and actors were only announced in 2006.


Bucket list has been used in computing literature much prior to the film, often referring to algorithms for "bucket sort", a way of sorting data. Wikipedia lists a number of other bucket metaphors in computing. A bucket, also a bin, is sometimes a buffer, or place to discretely distribute data, and can be of fixed size.

I think it's safe to say there's no link between this and the modern meaning of things to do before you kick the bucket.

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Yay! An answer that doesn't uncritically report every Google hit as a prior usage of the term. – T.E.D. Nov 4 '13 at 17:09
Hello, Hugo. I agree with your assessment of the Carlisle instance, which my Google Books search also turned up. It was one of two that led me to use the phrase "any definite instances" in my answer. The other was Ellie Kay, Heroes at Home: Help & Hope for America's Military Families, page 200. My Google Books search result says that this book is from 2002, but the copyright page gives three dates—2002, 2008, 1012—leaving the actual date when this occurrence of "bucket list" first appeared in the book in grave doubt. – Sven Yargs Nov 4 '13 at 19:18
@SvenYargs: Yes, I also found Heroes at Home and came to the same conclusion. – Hugo Nov 5 '13 at 7:43
I've sent the antedatings to the OED. – Hugo Dec 6 '13 at 19:28

A Google Books search doesn't produce any definite instances of "bucket list" prior to 2007 (the year the movie of that name came out) that used it in the sense of "a list of things to do before one dies."

However, the term goes back at least as far as 1965, as used in this U.S. National Bureau of Standards monograph, page 170 (1965) [snippet]:

To focus attention on the semantic aspects of word pairs rather than on their syntactic aspect, pairs of which one member is a function word, such as 'the', 'is', 'by', etc., are excluded. "Using a bucket list structure of the type proposed by C. J. Sheen in FN- 1634, the program sorts each incoming word serially, constructing a list within each of 256 buckets for good words of a given alphabetic range . . . and another list within each good word entry for the Doubles and Reverses which will be ordered alpahabetically...

To like effect, from Newman & Sproull, Principles of Interactive Computer Graphics (1979):

This is called the y-bucket list, because it is generated by a bucket sort in which each edge is entered in the "bucket" corresponding to its maximum y value.

It appears that in computer science (and perhaps elsewhere) "bucket list" had a well-established meaning long before the "before I die" meaning arose. It may be that someone who was exposed to the algorithmic meaning of "bucket list" made the connection with "kicking the bucket" and either humorously or naively introduced the new meaning.

UPDATE: With regard to the earliest occurrence of bucket list in the sense of "things to do before you die," here is an interesting blog post dated June 25, 2004, by Erica Firment on the Librarian Avengers website: Graduation Bucket List. I don't know whether the date is correct and whether it applies to the headline as well as to the body of the post—but if it is correct, it would antedate the film The Bucket List by about three years.

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As someone who had to implement these things in class back in the day, and also watches a lot of movies, I can assure you that practically no screenwriters have any knowledge whatsoever of Computer Science. – T.E.D. Nov 4 '13 at 17:12

I have heard the term "bucket list" (used to mean "things to do before I die") spoken by many people ever since I was growing up in the 70's. I'm sure it pre-dates that.

So the 2007 movie definitely did not coin the term.

(Why is something deemed to not exist if it's not in Google? That is crazy!!)

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Legitimate Google Books results (and other results associated with confirmed publication dates) provide objective evidence about when a particular usage must have existed. That's not to say that it couldn't have existed earlier—even much earlier—but evidence based on subjective memory is less compelling as proof to people who have no basis for assessing the reliability of the memory in question. Incidentally, T.E.D.'s comment under Hugo's answer takes the opposite tack from yours, slamming answerers for uncritically reporting any result that a Google Books search happens to return. – Sven Yargs Mar 15 '14 at 2:42
@Lizee - I also remember hearing the phrase (in the "stuff to do before dying" sense) for at least five years before the movie came out. However, as Sven has pointed out, my memory - and yours, sorry - can't be relied on, as we all can generate false memories either consciously or unconsciously. So it's important to give in-print citations much more credence than personal testimony - and Google, with its self-appointed mission to digitize everything it can find, is a pretty good and reliable source for that. More reliable than human memory, I'm afraid. – MT_Head Sep 24 '14 at 19:04
Yeah, I have the "feeling" that the term existed for a few years before the movie. At the very least, when the movie came out the title did not need to be explained. – Hot Licks Jan 1 at 22:13


Coined by screenwriter Justin Zackham in his screenplay for the 2007 film The Bucket List; articles about the movie are the earliest known uses.

"First Known Use: 2006" (MW); "popularized by the 2007 movie The Bucket List" (ODO AmE);

It can be surmised that the expression has been borrowed, or coined independently from Data Structures where it was already in use.

The 6502 forum (Jun 07, 2005)

Now zp-location PtrLo/Hi holds pointer to first element in bucket list.


When an application adds records and needs a bucket, RMS goes to the free bucket list and sets up pointers to a bucket from the free bucket list.


A direct access data structure known as a "bucket list" is used to efficiently select the polygons with projections along the coordinate axes that overlap those of the sieve.

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I really doubt the modern meaning of "things to do before you die" has anything to do with direct access data structures for efficiently selecting polygons. Their names are coincidental. – Hugo Jan 1 at 21:14
@Hugo It does -- etymology is so. It didn't when it was used as a literal pair of words in one context, but did when it was picked up and put in a different context as a phrase by Justin Zackham in a metaphorical usage. And presto! you got an idiom. – Kris Jan 2 at 7:46

I saw that M.Webster, the OED, and Wictionary all have 2006 as the date of origin, but I have found a usage of "bucket list" from 1980 in the relevant sense.

From Google Ngram:

But the title of the book is not listed correctly. It is actually a book about psychology.

Dean J. D.V.

Let me know what you think.

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HUH! Interesting! – Jolenealaska Sep 17 '14 at 1:11
Unfortunately, the linked book has a publication date of 2014. (You can scroll up to the front of the book from the match page for "my bucket list" to confirm this.) It's an easy mistake to make because the dates in the Ngram search results are correct at least 90 percent of the time. But the errors will bite you. – Sven Yargs Sep 17 '14 at 1:13
The match for “my bucket list” occurs in Appendix B to Ernst et al., “The Hospital-Based Consultation and Liaison Service,” which is listed as chapter 16 in the books table of contents (on page vi), so it’s definitely the same book that has the 2014 copyright. (Sometimes Google Books bundles multiple titles—usually of pamphlet length—in a single Google Books “volume” for additional boobytrap fun.) I also checked the online CV of one of the article’s authors, and she gives the piece a date of 2014, too. – Sven Yargs Sep 17 '14 at 1:26

How about this? Seems to be from 1999.. though I realise this may not be as it seems, so looking for confirmation!

December 1, 1999, 10:52 AM

The Life List: 175 Things A Man Should Do Before He Dies

THE UPDATED BUCKET LIST: 75 Things Every Man Should Do (with Photos!)

Esquire magazine

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@J It's always best to phrase answers as answers, and to include the quote itself (links can rot: preserve the evidence!) For what it's worth, it looks OK to me, but a print edition would be needed for absolutely definite proof, if anyone admits to keeping that edition this long. – Andrew Leach Jan 1 at 20:43
The original page may be from 1999, but that "bucket list" link isn't. It's not there in the earliest, 2008 page on the Internet Archive, which is after the 2007 film came out. It was added sometime between 9th and 25th Sepember 2009. – Hugo Jan 1 at 21:09

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