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Break A Leg: Theatrical

Posted by ESC on May 15, 2004

See 'Meaning and origin of the saying - break a leg'.

In Reply to: Break A Leg: Theatrical posted by Mike on May 15, 2004

: Although nobody can be really sure where the phrase originates, the most likely place (at least for the Theatre World) is from the most unlikely of items: The curtain.
: To avoid confusion between what is real and what is 'real' to the play, Theatre has its own terms for many items with trucks, flies/fly's, and flats are some of the more common. The main curtain that seperates the stage from the audience is know as the 'Tabs', and the rope used to lift and lower it was archaically known as the 'Leg'.
: To wish that someone would "Break The Leg" was to suggest that they had so many "curtain calls" to take more and more bows that this rope would literally fray and break. So to say "break a leg" is to wish someone an impecable performance rather than strictly good luck.

: It has been suggested to me that this may be linked to a 'leg' of a match. That one 'leg' is up to the point that the leg-rope was used to bring the curtain in, ie: the first half of a show. I'm not sure how true this part is though.

Interesting. Other theories (from the archives):

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."