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Frequently, before going on stage, someone will say "break a leg" to an actor, which is a peculiar acting saying meaning "good luck!" How did this expression come about?

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Because all actors are mad? –  mgb Aug 18 '11 at 19:31
    
A good example of this is in the play/movie "The Producers", though there have been allusions to the superstition in a number of plays. –  Hot Licks Nov 9 at 17:07

11 Answers 11

up vote 14 down vote accepted

According to Wikipedia, the term:

reflects a theatrical superstition in which wishing a person "good luck" is considered bad luck. The expression is sometimes used outside the theatre as superstitions and customs travel through other professions and then into common use. Among professional dancers, the phrase "break a leg" is replaced with "merde".

The article goes on to mention several theories about the actual origins of this expression. The one that is often mentioned (as far as I have heard), is called the Opposite Meaning theory. It says,

People in theatre consider it bad luck to wish an actor good luck, so instead they wish the opposite, by saying "break a leg!".

Another theory claims that the phrase has Greek origins:

In the time of Ancient Greece, people didn't applaud. Instead, they stomped for their appreciation and if they stomped long enough, they would break a leg. Or, some would have it that the term originated during Elizabethan times when, instead of applause the audience would bang their chairs on the ground—and if they liked it enough, the leg of the chair would break.[12]

Still another claims that the origins are, in fact, Yiddish:

Some etymologists believe it to be an adaptation from the Yiddish translation into German. The phrase "Hatsloche un Broche" (הצלחה און ברכה) ("success and blessing") had been calqued from the German phrase "Hals- und Beinbruch" ("neck and leg fracture"), because of near similar pronunciation.

The Phrase Finder (hat tip to Unreason) has even more theories on how the term came to be. They note that:

'Break a leg' also means, 'make a strenuous effort'. There are many references to the phrase used that way, which pre-date the earliest theatrical good luck charm meaning.

So the theories they offer stem from this. For example, the following things could be related to "breaking a leg":

  • Put on a performance good enough that you will have to bend your knee in a bow or curtsey to acknowledge the applause.
  • Impress the audience so much that you will need to bend down to pick up the coins they throw onto the stage.
  • Pass out onto the stage to receive a curtain call (the side curtains on a stage are known as legs).
  • Go on stage and have your 'big break'.

Note that still, nobody knows the exact origin of the phrase, but some are more plausible than others.

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phrases.org.uk/meanings/break-a-leg.html has few other possible etymologies –  Unreason Aug 18 '11 at 14:04
    
@Unreason Thank you for that link--I have added it to my answer, and credited you. –  simchona Aug 18 '11 at 19:01

It's a superstition; wishing a stage performer "good luck" will cause them to have bad luck, so instead the person tells the performer to have the worst luck commonly thought of; literally breaking a leg on stage would be a very bad thing, considering "the show must go on".

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It reminds me of in bocca al lupo ("in the jaws of the wolf") used in Italian to wish good luck. –  kiamlaluno Jul 12 '11 at 22:14

Someone told me that a "leg" was a part of the mechanism that raised and lowered the curtain, the idea being that you could get so many curtain calls, your very popularity would end up breaking the leg of the curtain. I find this extremely implausible but thought I'd pass it along.

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Saying "good luck" in theatre is considered bad luck. Just like saying "Macbeth" is considered bad luck or a bad omen. (Instead of saying "Macbeth", people will refer to it as "The Scottish Play")

Break a leg

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On that note... youtube.com/watch?v=h--HR7PWfp0 –  onomatomaniak Oct 8 '11 at 7:06

Break a leg may stand for run, go, rush, don't have second thoughts, you've got what it takes to win. It is like hit the road, hit the ground running, hit the ceiling etc. which shouldn't be taken literally.

It is one of those idioms that is transportable and not necessarily originating from the showbiz. It's for assuring and motivating actors even more than "good luck".

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My own theory is that the English "Break a leg" comes from Jewish theater. In Hebrew, "Baruch alechem" means "Bless everyone." It's easy to imagine how, in America, "Baruch alechem" might facetiously be rendered "break a leg."

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Ooh, I really like this. Could you provide a link which testifies that the Hebrew expression really means "bless everyone"? –  Mari-Lou A Sep 14 '13 at 12:23
    
Actually it's better translated as Bless you, which is even more apposite. It would be nice to have some corroboration from American theatre (theater?) though. –  Andrew Leach Nov 1 '13 at 7:48

Had heard that during Shakespeare's time only the rich could afford to go to the theater. Shakespeare however felt the poor should be allowed to see plays and made sure during this time that the poor would only be charged a penny to get into the theater and were made to stand not sit around the stage, front and center. The story goes on to say they would be in such amazement being able to view these productions their mouths would hang open to the point they would drool onto the stage making it slippery for the actors causing them to slip and fall and potentially break a leg

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Hmm. Do you have a reference for that? –  user867 Nov 1 '13 at 5:14

I had heard that in early theatre the lead actors study or stand in would say it to the lead actor, hoping he would get to fill in for the lead actor if he broke his leg or any thing that would get him to go on in his place .

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I like the "Vaudeville" theory from Theatre Superstitions". Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Retrieved 2012-06-30. that uses the "leg line" as its basis:
In the days of Vaudeville, companies would book more performers than could possibly make it onstage, but would only pay those who performed.[19] Since the Renaissance, legs have been used as part of the masking in proscenium theaters, which remain the most popular style of theater to this day.[20] Thus, to make it on stage, one had to enter the line of sight of the audience or "break a leg", to be paid

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My Director just explained to us that the curtains hanging either side of the stage are called "legs" in theatre touching the legs is a big no no! The expression "break a leg" means to walk past the legs (curtains) to come on stage! hence breaking through the legs!

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Very appealing hypothesis, and one that's not pure conjecture. Could you provide a reference that says theatre curtains are called legs? –  Mari-Lou A Oct 7 at 11:24

I heard that a famous actor long ago, broke his leg during his performance, but In the tradition of "The show must go on", he persevered and gave the greatest performance of his career.

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Do you have any idea who this was? –  Chenmunka Nov 9 at 18:42
    
I've heard of football /soccer players who have continued playing a match with fractured bones, torn hamstrings etc., so as a story it's quite plausible. However, simply stating "you heard" this story offers the OP, and everybody else, very little to go on. (Note that I didn't provide any names) It could also be that this incident happened long after the idiom had been established. –  Mari-Lou A Nov 10 at 3:49

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