Knock on Wood

We all know the saying “knock on wood.” Where does it come from? And what does “knock on wood” have to do with chemistry?

Back in the day, some believed that spirits lived in the trees in forest. Hey, who knows, maybe people still believe this today. At any rate, to keep good fortune people would knock on wood in hopes of waking the spirits and having them come out of the wood. Supposedly they were all good spirits and would help keep the person’s good fortune going. I don’t know about you, but if I were a spirit who was woken up by someone knocking on my house, I’d be pretty ticked off…

Connection with chemistry?
Albeit a loose connection, methanol is known as wood spirit. In fact, the first pure form of methanol was distilled from wood. You can even do it yourself. Go get some wood splinters, put them in a test tube with a loose top and heat it up. You’ll find that liquid begins to deposit on the glass of the test tube. While some of the liquid is moisture and dissolved organics, some of it will be methanol. If you take it one step further and use a stopper with a tube attached you can even collect the liquid. Usually the methanol will be in a high enough concentration that it can be lit on fire.

Methanol is extremely toxic though, so don’t drink it. It won’t get you drunk, it will just make you blind and/or kill you. Actually, I take that back, it might make you drunk but the whole going blind or dying part probably outweighs the benefits. Just 10mL of the stuff will cause permanent blindness while as little as 30mL can be fatal (about 120mL is usually the definitive lethal dose though). It kills humans through two main methods, one that affects your CNS, and the other by producing formic acid. Good news though; harmful effects usually take hours to set in, so proper intervention can usually mitigate the damage. Still, you don’t want to ingest methanol.

Why are alcohols called spirits too? For a completely different reason. Actually, a few reasons. First, because alcoholic beverages tend to fend off microbes, people referred to alcoholic beverages as “life water.” Life forms were considered to have spirits, so it was sometimes referred to as spirit water. Also, spiritus in Latin means “breath.” The alcoholic drinks breathed life into people.

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