The link between buckets and death was made by at least 1785, when the phrase was defined in Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as ‘to die’. To kick the bucket is an English idiom, considered a euphemistic, informal, or slang term meaning ‘to die’.
Its origin remains unclear, though there have been several theories. A common theory is that the idiom refers to hanging, either as a method of execution or suicide. However, there is no evidence to support this. In John Badcock’s slang dictionary of 1823, the explanation is given that “One Bolsover having hung himself from a beam while standing on a pail, or bucket, kicked this vessel away in order to pry into futurity and it was all up with him from that moment: Finis”.
There are no citations that relate the phrase to suicide and, in any case, why a bucket?
The mist begins to clear with the fact that in 16th century England bucket had an additional meaning (and in some parts it still has), that is, a beam or yoke used to hang or carry items. The term may have been introduced into English from the French trébuchet – meaning a balance, or buque – meaning a yoke. That meaning of bucket was referred to in Peter Levins’ Manipulus vocabulorum. A dictionarie of English and Latine wordes, 1570: “A Bucket, beame, tollo.”
The term was used by Shakespeare in Henry IV Part II, 1597: “Swifter then he that gibbets on the Brewers Bucket.” [to gibbet meant to hang]
The wooden frame that was used to hang animals up by their feet for slaughter was called a bucket. Not unnaturally they were likely to struggle or to spasm after death and hence ‘kick the bucket’.
Another theory suggests that the origin of the phrase comes from the Catholic custom of holy-water buckets: After death, when a body had been laid out … the holy-water bucket was brought from the church and put at the feet of the corpse. When friends came to pray… they would sprinkle the body with holy water … it is easy to see how such a saying as “kicking the bucket ” came about. Many other explanations of this saying have been given by persons who are unacquainted with Catholic custom — The Right Reverend Abbot Horne, Relics of Popery
Alternatively, in the moment of death a person stretches his legs (in Spanish Estirar la pata means ‘to die’) and so might kick the bucket placed there.
Yet another theory seeks to extend the saying beyond its earliest use in the 16th century with reference to the Latin proverb Capra Scyria, the goat that is said to kick over the pail after being milked (920 in Erasmus’ Adagia). Thus a promising beginning is followed by a bad ending or, as Andrea Alciato phrased it in the Latin poem accompanying the drawing in his Emblemata (1524), ‘Because you have spoilt your fine beginnings with a shameful end and turned your service into harm, you have done what the she-goat does when she kicks the bucket that holds her milk and with her hoof squanders her own riches’. Here it is the death of one’s reputation that is in question.
In life, we make goals which change as circumstances change. Goals may be achieved in the short-, medium- or long-term. Some are easy enough to do requiring just some adjustments or lifestyle change. Some may be gut-wrenching. Some may never be attainable in a lifetime.