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Show a leg/Shake a leg

Posted by ESC on December 31, 1999

In Reply to: Shake a leg posted by ESC on December 30, 1999

: : The origin of shake a leg as I have been lead to understand was derived from an old navy saying to "show a leg". When ships would put in port they would restrict the crew to the ship to avoid desertions, and they would allow the married sailors to have their wives join them aboard ship. When it came time for the ship to set sail, the call would be made in the bunk area to show a leg from underneath the covers and allow the females to dress and leave the ship. This was during the 1700 and 1800's. The phrase has apparently been twisted from "show a leg" into "shake a leg".

: My reference books agree with the show a leg/shake a leg origin. Let me know if you need or want to know the specific references.

SHAKE A LEG/SHOW A LEG - According to "Salty Dog Talk: The Nautical Origins of Everyday Expressions" by Bill Beavis and Richard G. McCloskey (Sheridan House, 1995), the meaning and origin of "show a leg" is: "Make a move, get started. It dates back to Napoleon times or before, when men were pressed into service and taken forcibly from the streets and their homes. Shore leave was impossible lest the men should desert, so as recompense, women were sometimes allowed to visit and it is recorded that at Spithead, the naval anchorage off Portsmouth, as many as 500 women might be entertained aboard one ship. Naturally in the mornings when work was begun there existed some confusion and the petty officers' way of sorting this out was to shout 'Show a leg!' Soft and curvy ones could stay where they were, hairy ones were kicked out of bed! Another shout that accompanied reveille was 'Rise and shine' which again people still use today. There are more, indeed there is an entire verse but it is much too rude to publish here."

The Facts on File "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, 1997) says the expression was "Show a leg, show a leg or a stocking!" The women on board were "ostensibly" the sailors' wives. ".the bos'n cried, 'Come on, all you sleepers! Hey! Show a leg and put a stocking on it.' 'Shake a leg,' meaning 'hurry,' may derive from this earlier phrase, for both are nautical expressions and no better explanation has been given."