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.

  • 1
    Don't forget 'pull my finger' lol. Jul 19, 2011 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, 2011 at 20:57
  • 1
    @Rachel, that's quite correct. Ladies cannot have their plonkers pulled. Jul 19, 2011 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.
    – user123615
    Jun 1, 2015 at 6:09
  • related: Why can a bird be pulled but never caught?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 13, 2015 at 5:46

5 Answers 5


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.


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.

  • 2
    Interesting. I've never heard this view before. Welcome to English SE!
    – Luke_0
    Oct 6, 2012 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, 2014 at 19:43
  • Are you pulling our leg? Brilliant!!! :) Jun 1, 2015 at 11:46
  • I don't believe this is the origin of the idiom. To "pull one's leg" carries with it the implication that the person doing the pulling is attempting to make someone look foolish for the purpose of amusement. For example, one might "pull someone's leg" by spinning a yarn for their gullible friend to get a laugh at their expense. This is quite a bit different from Jacob's deception, which is carried out for the purpose of personal gain. As such, it doesn't fit the popular usage nearly as well as the explanation given by KeithS.
    – Dr. Funk
    Oct 27, 2015 at 16:15

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.

  • 2
    This is really fascinating! Add a source and this would make for an excellent answer. Feb 15, 2014 at 8:06
  • 1
    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, 2014 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, 2014 at 13:51
  • A hanging done correctly takes mere moments, as it breaks the neck. Death by hanging does not occur through strangulation, but rather through severing the spinal cord. This is why gallows will have a trap door through which the hanged fall - the noose snaps taught after a short fall, thus breaking the neck. Furthermore, if one were to pull on a loved one's leg to "speed up" an execution, it would be done out of mercy, not out of a desire to have a laugh at them, as the modern usage of the idiom implies. I do believe you are pulling everyone's leg with this one.
    – Dr. Funk
    Oct 27, 2015 at 16:26

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.


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."

  • 1
    Please add an actual link to where you found this. Jun 29, 2014 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, 2015 at 8:46

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