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The meaning and origin of the expression: Show a leg

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Show a leg

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

Rouse yourself from sleep and get out of bed.

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

Show a leg originated in the British Royal Navy around the turn of the 19th century.

Show a legSailors were roused from their hammocks by the call "Show (or shew) a leg". The appearance of a leg indicated that the mariner was awake and ready to rise.

The first use of it that I can find in print is in Alfred Burton's poem The Adventures of Johnny Newcome in the Navy:

‘Hoy! shew a leg, and save a clue! - ’ Rouse! rouse! - heave out!

It's reasonable to assume that the phrase was in use in the Navy for some time before it made its way into print.

Show a leg means either 'make an appearance' or 'hurry along'. The second meaning isn't commonly used, nor is it old. That meaning appears to derive from a confusion between 'show a leg' and 'shake a leg'.

An alternative version of the derivation of 'show a leg' comes from the fact that women were allowed on board Royal Navy ships in the 19th century. Women were allowed to stay asleep after the sailors had been roused. The order of show a leg was supposed to have been given so that the shapely or stockinged women's legs could be distinguished from those of the hairy-legged sailors. Believe that if you will; personally, I don't.

Show a legThe use of show a leg as a wake-up call is well documented though. John Masefield (Poet Laureate from 1930 to 1967) was a trainee mariner on HMS Conway until 1891. He reported the full version of the morning call as:

Heave out, heave out, heave out, heave out! Away!
Come all you sleepers, Hey!
Show a leg and put a stocking in it.

(No connection there to put a sock in it by the way. That has a different meaning and is 20th century)

See other Nautical Phrases.