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.


It’s behind you!

It’s one of our great British Christmas traditions and no doubt families will be flocking into theatres across the country over the next few weeks to get festive with a classic pantomime. For us Brits, there’s nothing we love more than a good old panto with risqué innuendos aplenty, B-list celebrities, much-loved audience participation, and a man in drag in some outlandish get-up. It’s a source of great national pride.panto

For any non-Brit readers, it probably sounds a bit eccentric. Pantomimes are performed around the Christmas period and are popular with children, although there are many cheeky jokes aimed at adults which generally go over the kids’ heads. The story will vary between productions but they are all loosely based on a popular fairy tale or children’s story such as Cinderella or Aladdin.

Pantomime as we know it allegedly originated around 1710 and was popularised in the Victorian era but the word itself goes back to Ancient Greece. The Greek pantomimos means ‘actor’ or literally ‘imitator of all’ from panto- ‘all’ and mimos ‘imitator’. It was then loaned into Latin with the meaning ‘mime, dancer’ and reached English by the 1610s as ‘mime actor’. The word then evolved from denoting the actors to referring to the show itself and many conventions of the Italian ‘Comedia dell’ Arte’ were adopted, including several of the stock characters and an emphasis on song and dance.

Another offshoot of ‘Comedia dell’ Arte’ is slapstick comedy, which today means ‘farcical physical comedy’. The lead male in ‘Comedia dell’ Arte’ was Harlequin, a magical character with a wooden sword that would be used sometimes as a weapon and sometimes as a wand. This sword would make a loud slapping noise when used, so as to make slapping other characters more comical. Thus, the joke was slapstick. To this day, a drummer in the orchestra pit will highlight and accentuate a slapstick joke with a slapping noise.

So for the next time you see Buttons or Widow Twankey, you’ll know exactly where pantomime and slapstick com from. Now you just need to refine your hisses, boos and oh no it is isn’ts!

For more on the history and evolution of pantomime, read on: