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.


Ears are Burning

I stumbled across my chosen word story for e by chance in a conversation with some international friends last weekend. After talking about an absent friend, the Estonian said, ‘He must be coughing now’. Then the Bangladeshi added, ‘Yes, he must be sneezing’. I was puzzled. Why should our absent friend be coughing or sneezing? As far as I was aware, he wasn’t ill. And then the penny dropped. What they had both done, and understood each other perfectly when doing it, was to adapt the phrase of their own culture to the international, English conversation, to suggest that somewhere the friend must have felt that we were talking about him. The British equivalent is: his ears must be burning.

The idea that someone’s ears are burning goes back to the Romans and is first attested in 77AD, in Pliny’s ‘Natural History’. During ancient times, signs like sensations in the ears were considered significant to augurs, Roman officials who interpreted omens for guidance in public affairs.

According to Pliny, ‘It is acknowledged that the absent feel a presentiment of remarks about themselves by the ringing of their ears’.

He goes on to say that a sensation in the right ear means the talk is positive while if the left ear burns, the subject is of evil intent.

This idea has thrived over the years and the expression can be found in many works of English literature, from Chaucer to Dickens.

Unfortunately, expressions surrounding other bodily sensations didn’t stand the test of time. Otherwise we might have been talking about flickering right eyes when friends are expected to visit or pricking in the left thumb when something bad is about to happen.

From my dabbles on Google, I’ve found that the idea that you sneeze when someone talks about you is found in Japan, Vietnam and Greece and you cough in Afghanistan. Do you have anything similar in your country?