Break a Leg

Today’s phrase up for consideration is one from the back catalogue in honour of my friend, blogger and director, and the performance of her new show. So for the cast and crew and everyone involved in Frozen, break a leg!

It’s an odd superstition that before any sort of theatrical or arts performance we think it’s unlucky to utter a good luck. Especially when you consider that we would happily say those words before important exams, driving tests or a job interview. We all know that the correct thing to say is break a leg, but you would think that breaking a leg would actually be a pretty unlucky thing, so where does this phrase come from?

The truth is we’re not quite sure. There are a few false etymologies that seem quite unlikely. One suggests that the curtain pulls were once called legs which would eventually break after lots of wear and tear. So to break a leg would be a good thing, meaning that you had had lots of popular and successful performances.

Another false etymology comes from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Allegedly, John Wilkes Booth, actor-come-assassin, jumped onto the Ford’s Theatre stage after murdering Lincoln and broke his leg. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence of the phrase before the 19th century and it’s difficult to see how Lincoln’s assassination would tie in with good luck.

The most likely explanation is that the phrase is simple superstition. The Italians have a comparable phrase, bocca al lupo, and the Germans have a particularly similar expression, Hals- und Beinbruch, which means ‘break your neck and leg’ or literally ‘neck and leg break’. It might be that we get the phrase from this since there is an example of the same structure from 1954 in the News of Fredrick, Maryland.

Among the many sayings for “good luck,” you can hear actors whisper “neck and leg break” to each other as the footlights dim and the curtain rises each opening night. Although “neck and leg break” sounds more like a call for a wrestling arena, theatrically it means, “good luck”.

Still, there is the possibility that the German and English expressions appeared simultaneously, without the former being the origin of the latter, since Japanese has a similar phrase as well. Some people claim the phrase has a British origin but the earliest recorded citations are all American. Supposedly it dates back to the 1930s but the first complete example comes from 1957 in the Associated Press in a story about an actress who literally broke her leg during the performance.

In the theater, they say “break a leg” to an actor just before he goes on stage, but it really means “good luck.”

All in all, it’s a bit of a mystery. Generally, it seems that the phrase is simply a way of stopping a jinx; if it is bad luck to wish for a good performance, you have to wish for a bad one instead.

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2 thoughts on “Break a Leg

  1. Hi. I am from Japan, and I am wondering what exactly is the Japanese phrase similar to ‘Break a leg.’ Does that happen to be ‘hone o oru,’ (break a bone,) which is an idiomatic expression meaning ‘to make a lot of effort’? I am not sure if it is used when we wish for a good luck.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing an interesting piece of information.

    • Thanks for your comment! It’s exciting to see my blog is reaching as far as Japan!

      To be quite honest, I’m not sure what the similar Japanese expression is meant to be since the source of that fact doesn’t go into detail. The exact quote from wordorigins.org is: “The possibility that both languages developed similar phrases is plausible (Japanese has a similar phrase as well) given that the superstition of the jinx is common around the world.” Perhaps the author just meant that the structure of the phrase is similar rather than the use?

      In fact, now I’m looking into it again (I originally wrote this post nearly a year ago) I can’t find any other references to Japanese in Cassell’s Dictionary of Word and Origin Phrases, etymonline.com or the OED. So I think you’re probably correct. Thanks for the input. It really helps to make Word Stories more accurate which, to me, is really important.

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