6 Origins of Break A Leg
John Spacey, September 27, 2021
Break a leg is a dead metaphor and English idiom that means good luck. This has strong links to theatre and is a traditional way to wish a performer luck before a performance. The following are probable origins of the phrase.
Golden Age of TheatreThe first sources that reference the phrase break a leg appear in the 1920s in reference to theatrical performances. Robert Wilson Lynd referenced "May you break your leg!" in an October 1921 article about superstition in the theatre and horse racing. This was a time of thriving theatre scenes, particularly in America where Vaudeville and Broadway experienced a golden age inspired by competition from silent movies.
Dead MetaphorBreak a leg is a dead metaphor meaning that it was originally a metaphor but this meaning has been dropped such that it now directly means good luck in English.
SuperstitionThere are hundreds of superstitions in dozens of cultures that relate to bad luck being caused by saying positive things or making positive predictions. For example, the practice of knocking on wood after saying something positive to ward off bad luck. This is of ancient origins and has variants in dozens of languages. In this context, break a leg likely emerged as a means to wish people good luck without triggering this superstitious sense that saying positive things is unlucky.
Theatre CultureThe theory that break a leg is a way to avoid saying "good luck" is supported by the culture surrounding theatrical performances that strongly embraces superstition such as the belief that saying "Macbeth" in a theatre will trigger profound bad luck.
Neck and Leg BreakThe German phrase "Hals- und Beinbruch" meaning "neck and leg break" was used in WWI by German pilots to wish each other good luck. This may have been based on earlier German hunting traditions that used the same phrase. Hals- und Beinbruch is a play on the similarly sounding Yiddish "Hatsloche un Broche" that means success and blessings. It is possible that this German phrase is the origin of the English idiom.
Implausible TheoriesAs the root origin of break a leg is unknown, there are numerous theories as to its origin. For example, the idea that break a leg was a metaphor to bowing and curtsying to the audience because you receive applause. This is implausible because the earliest references to the phrase explicitly mention that the phrase "good luck" was considered unlucky in the culture of theatre such that break a leg was an ironical substitution.
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ReferencesRobert Wilson Lynd. "A Defence of Superstition", The New Statesman, October 1, 2021.
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