Jack Nicholson ticks off one of his ‘bucket list’ items .

As a teacher of English as a foreign language, I have more than a passing interest in linguistic conundrums.

Idiomatic and general slang expressions are notoriously hard to translate particularly when there is no direct equivalent in the target language, in my case Italian.

‘To kick the bucket’ is one example which, if translated simply as ‘to die’,  would lose the casual, even jokey register. You wouldn’t make a formal announcement that someone has passed on by saying that they had kicked the bucket.

In the last five years the term ‘bucket list’ has gone viral on the blogosphere and it’s a term that , until recently, left me mystified mainly because I missed the movie from which it originated.

The Bucket List (the film) is a kind of buddy movie  directed by Rob Reiner. It stars Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as two terminally ill cancer patients who make a list of things they want to do before they ‘kick the bucket’. One critic described it as a feel good movie about death. Reviews are mixed and suggest that , while  it has its moments, it is no masterpiece.

tropical bucket

A bucket (list not pictured!)

In other words, the phrase hasn’t become popular because it recalls a great movie. It simply struck a chord with fit and healthy people who are determined to live life to the full (and also appeals to people who love making lists). Lesley Carter’s popular Bucket List Publications is one good example of this phenomenon.

I think the term has caught on so quickly because of its fun connotations (like a party game) – it doesn’t seem as morbid as listing ‘things I must do before I die’.

Translations of the film’s title make interesting reading. Something equivalent to ‘now or never’ is a popular choice. In Italian, the title is “Non è mai troppo tardi” (It’s never too late).

If you use an online translation tool (like Babylon) a literal rendering becomes “La lista della benna”. ‘Benna’ is a curious (and probably wrong) choice because this is a word for a container, usually connected by a hook, in the field of mechanical engineering. The word “secchio” is more common as it denotes an everyday household item or something to play with,  like a bucket and spade on the beach.

I Googled ‘lista di secchio” and came up with 1,770.000 hits. Many of these are offering a range of buckets to buy with the first results deriving from Trip Advisor enthusing about supposedly unmissable places and restaurants.

It wouldn’t surprise me if  ‘lista della benna/ di secchio” come into usage in Italy with most people being oblivious to the origin of the term in the same way that people say ‘kick the bucket’ without knowing where the idiom comes from. Wiki lists three possibilities, the most common theory being that it refers to kicking away a bucket someone is standing on when committing suicide or being executed by hanging.

If nothing else, this all goes to show that keeping up to date with new and old expressions is a tough call even for native speakers and an even bigger challenge for those trying to get to grips with the language.