This is an English idiom, a euphemistic term meaning ‘to die.’ Its earliest appearance in print is in the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785).
A common theory is that the idiom refers to hanging, as a method of either execution or suicide. The Oxford English Dictionary regards this as merely speculative, but a report in a Bath newspaper on 25 September 1788 told of the suicide of a man called John Marshfield, who killed himself in just this way.
Back in the days when public executions were the norm for various crimes from theft to murder, hanging was the preferred method of execution and trees were often used for this purpose. A rope would be attached to a strong branch and a noose placed around the victim’s neck. The victim would then be forced to stand on an upturned water bucket. This was then kicked away and the victim’s neck would be broken, causing, one would hope, instantaneous death.
The theory favoured by the OED relates to the alternative definition of a bucket as a beam or yoke that can be used to hang or carry things on. The “bucket” may refer to the beam on which pigs are suspended to be slaughtered. The animals may struggle on the bucket, hence the expression. The word “bucket” is still used today to refer to such a beam in the Norfolk dialect. The derivation is either from Old French buquet (a balance) or the fact that the raising of the yoke on a pulley resembled a bucket being lifted from a well. The term is known to date from at least the 16th century.
A third theory suggests that the origin of the phrase comes from a Catholic custom: 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” might come about from this practice.
Yet another theory refers to the Latin proverb of Capra Scyria, the goat that is said to kick over the pail after being milked. Thus a promising beginning is followed by a bad ending or, as Andrea Alciato wrote 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.
There are also a few American variations. Here, a variation of the idiom is ‘kick off.’ A related phrase is to “hand in one’s dinner pail,” a bucket that contains a worker’s dinner.
It may have derived from a native word in one of the West African creoles. The expression ‘kek(e)rebu’ is first recorded in 1721 with the meaning ‘to die’ in the Krio language of Sierra Leone.
Whatever African American usage might have been in the 19th century, by the 20th century the idiom ‘kick the bucket’ was everywhere in use. It occurs in the jazz classic Old Man Mose, recorded by Louis Armstrong in the USA in 1935, and in the West Indies it figured in the title of the reggae hit “Long Shot kick de bucket,” recorded by The Pioneers in 1969. In the case of the latter, the song refers to the death of a horse.
Then again, in the 1920s, Chicago gangsters used to punish “double crossers” by tying them to a heavy chair with their feet in a bucket filled with wet cement. The victims of course struggled and kicked the bucket. When the cement had hardened, the double crosser was taken for a ride to Lake Michigan and dumped in.
I wonder how hanging would work these days, when buckets are usually made of plastic.