To kick the bucket means, quite simply, to die.
It’s a totally informal expression; a mildly disrespectful, slightly humorous euphemistic slang term that at least in my experience is used to take some of the sting out of death.
I remembering the phrase kick the bucket used a lot when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s. But it was never something one said to, or in the company of, somebody who has had a close connection with the newly departed. For example…
“Gee Aunt Ivy, I was sad to hear Uncle Anton kicked the bucket.”
Good usage (well, not really, and said as far away as possible behind the back of Aunt Ivy):
“So old Uncle Anton finally kicked the bucket. Boy, he was the stingiest man alive.”
Throughout the web several theories have been posted regarding the origin of kick the bucket, but the one I find most plausible has nothing to do with the kind of pail anybody’s familiar with — tin, wooden, or otherwise. According to Wikipedia, the word “bucket” in the phrase refers to the beam on which pigs were hung for slaughter.
It is easy to imagine that in the struggle to avoid their fate, pigs actually kicked the bucket in the old sense of the word. This meaning for “bucket” still lives on in the Northfolk dialect of Great Britain, and it is probably derived from the Anglo-French words trebuchet for “balance” or buque for “yoke” (see illustration above).
KICKING THE BUCKET, REALLY
Probably the best presentation of kicking the bucket in cinema can be found in the movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
In the beginning of the flick, “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante), released from prison after robbing a tuna factory some 15 years earlier, careens off a desert highway and suffers a fatal car crash.
But before he dies, Grogan utters to his would-be rescuers a cryptic line about his stolen buried fortune. And this sets off a madcap hunt for the treasure that involves Hollywood’s cream of the crop (Idiom Alert), comedic and character actors from the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s.
Besides Durante, the cast includes Spencer Tracey, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Jonathan Winters, Edie Adams, Dorothy Provine, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and Peter Falk. Whew.
And did I mention The Three Stooges?
As a whole, the movie huffs and puffs a lot, and the penultimate scene is, well, too long, but the individual “bits” are way better and funnier than the sum of the film’s parts.
But if you like films, and especially if you are interested in Big Hollywood’s take on comedy from more than forty years ago, you owe it to yourself to see It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World at least once before you…, well you know what I mean.