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?
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".
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.
Via the same Usenet group, a 16 June 2006 blogpost quoting a 11 June 2006 Usenet post referred to the script:
But obviously the script had already been written and there'll be early script drafts somewhere.
Slate Magazine searched Google Books and claimed a 2004:
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.
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.
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 like effect, from Newman & Sproull, Principles of Interactive Computer Graphics (1979):
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.
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!!)
"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)