break a leg

Superstition against wishing an actor Good Luck! has led to the adoption of this phrase in its place. The date of origin is a bit obscure; as theatrical slang it existed long before it was ever documented in print, but the intent of the phrase is clear. It is simply a way of warding off a jinx. It being bad luck to speak of a positive performance, one instead speaks of a bad one.

Based on the recollections of actors, break a leg is commonly thought to date to the 1930s. Some claim a British origin, but the earliest citations are all American.1 The earliest actual appearance in print that anyone has found is from 1957, from the 29 May Associated Press wire service story about a dancer who literally broke her leg during a performance:

In the theater, they say “break a leg” to an actor just before he goes on stage, but it really means “good luck.”2

Then there is is interesting citation from the 18 June 1954 News of Frederick, Maryland:

If old theater sayings are any indication of success, there’s a great many “breaks” in store for the Mountain Theater [...] 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.”3

This article is interesting in that it suggests a connection with the German phrase Hals und Beinbruch, which is an invitation to break one’s neck and leg or to break one’s neck and bone, depending on how one translates it.4 The similarity with the German phrase is striking and given that the tortured construction of the phrase in the newspaper article, the German is probably the source. Also worth noting is that, unlike the 1957 story, the article does not mention the phrase break a leg, even though the article details how the director of the show literally broke his leg during a rehearsal.

Whether or not the German is the origin for break a leg, though, is still not clear though. If break a leg does indeed date to the 1930s, this 1954 article may not be pointing out the origin. 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. Still it seems likely that the German phrase at least influenced the English, if it is not the origin.

There are several false etymologies for the phrase break a leg. One is that the phrase stems from the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth, the actor turned assassin, leaped to the stage of Ford’s Theater after the murder, breaking his leg in the process. The logical connection with good luck is none too clear, but such is folklore. But unfortunately for this great story, there is no evidence to suggest that this is the origin of the phrase or even that the phrase dates to the 19th century.

There are various other false explanations. One is that it refers to bending the leg during a curtain call. Another is a reference to the curtains pulls that were allegedly called legs, the opening and closing of the curtains during numerous curtain calls could result in the curtain pulls breaking, or so one might wish. As inventive as these explanations are, the origin is in simple superstition.

1New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, v. I & II, edited by Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2006), 259-60.

2”Nobody Said ‘Break Leg’--So Actress Does It,” Union-Bulletin (Walla Walla, WA), 29 May 1957, Evening, 7.

3”Director is Hurt During Rehearsal,” News (Frederick, MD), 18 June 1954, 4.

4Eric Partridge, Dictionary of Catch Phrases, edited by Paul Beale, Revised and Updated Edition, 1985 (Lanham, MD: Scarborough House, 1992), 37-38.

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