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?
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.
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.
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")
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. 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. Thus, to make it on stage, one had to enter the line of sight of the audience or "break a leg", to be paid
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".
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