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Break a leg

Posted by Bruce Kahl on February 06, 2004

In Reply to: Break a leg posted by ESC on February 06, 2004

: : : Hi can you please help me find the meaning ang origin to this phrase .

: : It means "Good luck!"

: : Used by U.S. actors (though it may have originated in England or Germany) to wish each other well just before they go on stage. Actors have a superstition that saying "Good luck" straightforwardly would tempt the gods to subvert the wish by making something bad happen (paraphrased from Eric Partridge, "A Dictionary of Catch Phrases American and British").

: Another theory was suggested by a poster here on Phrase Finder. He said "break a leg" is a wish that the audience will be so excited that they will stomp and break the leg/foot rest on back of the seats.

I thought it was the result of the audience cheering and the actors coming back on stage with the women doing a curtsy consisting of a slight lowering of the body with bending or breaking of the knees.

From the Word Detective with some more detail on ESC's post:

"Eric Partridge explains that he favors the theory that "break a leg" originated as a translation of a similar German catchphrase "Hals- und bienbruch," with which German actors wish their colleagues "a broken neck and a broken leg." The German phrase seems to have begun life among aviators, possibly during World War I, and gradually spread to the German theatre and then to the British and American stages.

Popular folklore down through the ages is full of warnings against wishing your friends good luck. To do so is to tempt evil spirits or demons to do your friend harm. Better to outwit the demons by wishing your friend bad fortune.

One of the more colorful theories about the origins of the phrase is that "break a leg" is a reference to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., by John Wilkes Booth, an actor, in 1865. In attempting to flee the scene, Booth jumped from Lincoln's box to the stage, breaking his leg. The fact that actors didn't start wishing each other good luck by saying "break a leg" until more than 50 years after Lincoln's assassination makes this an unlikely source."