Shake a leg


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Shake a leg'?

Shake a leg is used in several ways, but always to indicate movement – to move, to dance or to hurry up.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Shake a leg'?

The phrase is sometimes used to mean ‘get going’ or ‘hurry up’. It was explicitly defined that way in the New York Magazine in 1904:

“Shake a leg … meaning to ‘hurry up’.”

The more recent UK phrase ‘get a legger on’ is another way of saying the same thing.

Before that though shake a leg had another meaning, which was ‘to dance’. There are several citations from various US and UK sources from the mid 19th century that relate to dancing; for example, the Dubuque Democratic Herald, October 1863, in an advertisement for a local ball:

“Nearly every man in town able to shake a leg has purchased a ticket.”

In the Australian Aboriginal culture there is a dance called ‘Shake a leg’, which certainly lives up to its name.

There are various ‘Shake a…’ phrases which relate to dancing. In the 18th and 19th century ‘shake your heels’, shake a foot’, ‘shake a toe’ and ‘shake your bones’ were all used. These have mostly disappeared now, with ‘shake a leg’ the only early one that has lasted the course. In recent times ‘shake your booty’, ‘shake, rattle and roll’ or just ‘shake it’ have become common.

‘Shake a leg’ is sometimes confused with ‘show a leg‘. These two phrases aren’t related and derived independently of each other.

Trend of shake a leg in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.