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Someone was pulling my leg the other day (meaning, attempting some mild or humourous deception), and I wondered about the etymology of this phrase. Does anyone know when it originated, and why it should come to be used in this way?

This source here suggests it originates from the idea of tripping someone up. But that doesn't explain the alternative case of pulling my plonker.

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Don't forget 'pull my finger' lol. –  whoabackoff Jul 19 '11 at 18:49
    
@Brian Hooper I have yet to read into what the slang term "plonker" means, but my knee-jerk reaction (etymology meter is on high!) is thinking straight in the gutter. –  Rachel Jul 19 '11 at 20:57
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@Rachel, that's quite correct. Ladies cannot have their plonkers pulled. –  Brian Hooper Jul 19 '11 at 20:59
    
In spanish we have a saying that a ghost will pull you leg. Also jokingly if you want to scare someone in their sleep you can pull their leg. Many people experience the sensation of their leg getting pulled in their sleep, just like the sensation of falling. With english being my second language i always thought it was the same reference. –  Mec Jun 1 at 6:09
    

5 Answers 5

up vote 3 down vote accepted

To "pull one's leg", as a saying, does seem to have the etymology you describe; every source I can find states that it dates back to the mid-1800s in England, and refers to physically tripping up another person, which puts him off balance, possibly makes him collide with others in awkward ways, and generally makes him look foolish. It quickly evolved to mean achieving that result - making a person look foolish - regardless of the specific means used. The most popular means to do so is to tell a deliberate plausible non-truth which, if believed, would lead the person react foolishly.

"Pulling one's plonker" by contrast seems to be a much newer term, still considered slang and rare in American usage (it's most common in British and Australian vernacular). It's one of many examples of introducing a sexual connotation to otherwise "innocent" idioms and sayings.

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In Genesis 25, Rebekah is giving birth to Esau and Jacob. As Esau is being born, Jacob reaches out and grabs Esau's leg and holds on, thus he is called Jacob, "one who pulls the leg".

Throughout the rest of his life Jacob is known for his deception, trickery and lies to gain advantage over his brother and other people as well. I believe the saying is in reference to Jacob and Esau.

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Interesting. I've never heard this view before. Welcome to English SE! –  American Luke Oct 6 '12 at 22:16
    
It's not so much Jacob who lies and deceives, if memory serves me well, but his mother who convives with her younger son, anxious that he receives his father's blessing in the place of his elder brother. Nevertheless, I like the connection, could well be the origin of "pulling someone's leg". –  Mari-Lou A Feb 15 '14 at 19:43
    
Are you pulling our leg? Brilliant!!! :) –  Konrad Gajewski Jun 1 at 11:46

Pulling my leg or, 'your leg', originates from the public executions (hangings) in England, many of which took place in Tyburn, London.

Death from hanging could take up to an excruciating 30 minutes and, if one was lucky, family and/or friends would pull on your leg to speed up the execution.

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This is really fascinating! Add a source and this would make for an excellent answer. –  medica Feb 15 '14 at 8:06
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Please, do find a source. It sounds very plausible, although how it relates to someone telling a whopper i.e., an unbelievable story or whopper mystifies me a little. –  Mari-Lou A Feb 15 '14 at 19:37
    
I go with the tripping or the biblical tale. The hanging theory has nothing about making a fool of someone, especially if it's done by friends and family. –  user82512 Jun 29 '14 at 13:51

Totally speculative, but I imagined it referred to pickpockets or rather the children who worked with them and whose job it was—and is—to distract the mark by engaging them in some spurious exchange initiated, perhaps, by a tug on one's pant leg. Such a scenario speaks to both the deceptive and the fool-making aspects of the idiom.

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I just looked this up on Wikia desert. Com

"It has a criminal background, and those that used to steal from people in crime ridden London in the olden days... they used to literally have wires to trip people up which pulled on their leg, then someone else took their valuables whilst they were feeling rather compromised on the floor.

Over time this stumbling, mishap and the comical effect of someone falling over came to be adapted slightly to making fun of someone in general, and hence the origin of the phrase."

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Please add an actual link to where you found this. –  Matt E. Эллен Jun 29 '14 at 15:15
    
The earliest dated online occurrence of this explanation is Paul Oh, "Soup to Nuts," on the dComposing website (June 5, 2009). Unfortunately, that answer doesn't provide any linked authority for the explanation, so your willingness to accept this explanation as valid depends on your inclination to accept uncorroborated theories of phrase origin from people you don't know on the Internet. –  Sven Yargs Jun 1 at 8:46

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