12

My understanding is that this goes back to George Washington's time when having one's portrait painted was very fashionable. However, artists did not like painting arms and legs because they often got the proportions wrong. So, they would give discounts on their fees if the sitter was prepared to hide one arm behind his back or cover a leg behind a piece of drapery. If you look at paintings from that period you will see many examples of the subject with his hand tucked into his waist coat or hidden behind something. Sounds feasible to me.

15
  • 8
    Sounds odd... if you can't paint an arm or a leg, I don't see why hiding one arm or leg would help at all. If you can paint one arm or leg well enough to be a professional portrait artist, you can certainly paint the other arm or leg. I'd believe that a painting with a less complex subject could cost less, but I'm skeptical that it's because 18th century artists didn't know how to paint arms or legs properly (clearly, they did). Jan 5, 2021 at 17:59
  • 2
    It's much more plausible that it relates to having a limb amputated due to some sort of injury.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 5, 2021 at 18:05
  • 1
    The Phrase Finder mentions the given "pub story" but goes on to attribute it to what becoming involved in a conflict might cost you. Jan 5, 2021 at 18:08
  • 1
    ... or perhaps related to Shylock's 'pound of flesh'. Jan 5, 2021 at 18:09
  • 7
    The very hardest part to capture in a portrait is the face. An arm has to look like an arm, but the face has to look liked that face. Jan 5, 2021 at 22:29

3 Answers 3

21

The George Washington story and that of painters of his time who charged prices according to the number of limbs they were supposed to paint appears to be inconsistent. A more credible etymology is the following:

The expression “to cost an arm and a leg” is a metaphor about precious body parts. The similar line “I’d give my right arm…” dates from the early 1600s.

The phrase “an arm and a leg” rattled off the tongue easily before it was used to signify an exorbitant price. After the American Civil War, Congress enacted a special pension for soldiers who had lost both an arm and a leg. The phrase “cost an arm and a leg” begins to crop up in newspaper archives in 1901, referring to accidents and war injuries. In 1949, it shows up in the figurative sense.

The Long Beach Independent reported, "Food editor Beulah Karney has … ideas for the homemaker who wants to say 'Merry Christmas' and not have it cost an arm and a leg."

(mentalfloss.com)

4

Christine Ammer, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition 2013) has this relevant entry:

arm and a leg An exorbitant amount of money, as in These resort hotels charge an arm and a leg for a decent meal, or Fixing the car is going to cost an arm and a leg. According to Eric Partridge, this hyperbolic idiom, which is always used in conjunction with verbs such as "cost," "charge," or "pay," an became widely known from the 1930s on, probably came from the 19th-century American criminal slang phrase, if it takes a leg (that is, even at the cost of a leg), to express desperate determination.

An Elephind search for "cost an arm and a leg" turns up this match from "Rex Beach, Novelist, with Sight Restored by Bride's Care, Will Take New Wife on New Hunt for Coveted 'Blue' Bear" in the New York Evening World (September 12, 1908):

Once there [in the Arctic], would you dauntlessly beard fourteen brown and black bears and grizzlies—all you find—and slay every bruin's son of 'em and so strain your tortured eyes in search of that blue bear's den that only five weeks of ceaseless care in a hospital would restore an almost helpless case of iritis—the most painful malady known to medicine?

Then, nursed back to life by that same little wife who had unconsciously set you revolving in a whirlwind of adventure and peril, would you still insist that were there but one of those blue bears in existence you would yet bring it home for that little blue room, though it cost an arm and a leg besides the eye?

The usage of "cost an arm and a leg" her appears to be literal (but exaggerated), rather than a figurative way of saying "cost a lot of money." Nevertheless, it suggests that "cost an arm and a leg" was already idiomatic in the U.S. in 1908.

The oldest match I could find for "cost an arm and a leg" in a purely figurative sense is from "Record Accessories," in The Record Changer, volume 7 (February 1948) [combined snippets]:

The finest needle on the market for some time now has been the diamond point. However, it had one serious drawback. It cost an arm and a leg, running about $50. The Walco people, realizing that the diamond, due to its extreme hardness and highly polished surface, did the least harm to record surfaces, strove for many years to devise a cheaper manner in which to polish the precious stones. They have finally come out with a diamond point needle which sells for about one quarter of the previous one. Now it only costs $12.50. This is still a lot of hay but one cannot expect the price ever to come down much below this. It's pretty easy to chip a sapphire but one would have to really go some to do any damage at all to one of these babies. Expensive but good.

Another instance, in the May 1948 issue of the same publication, reads as follows:

Several readers have written requesting that we mail them their copies either first class or airmail. I really don't know how to answer these requests. First of all it costs an arm and a leg to mail a publication these classes considering that the weight varies between 5 and 8 ounces. You fellows would have to pay it , of course. Is it worth it to you to do that? My own feeling on the subject is that unless all copies were delivered in that way it would give an unfair advantage to the fellows who spend the extra postage money.

I confirmed the dates of both instances at the Internet Archive.

Also, from an unidentified advertisement—possibly for Hoffman Motorcycles—in American Bicyclist and Motorcyclist, volume 71, page 63 (1950):

Distributors and dealers are invited to write us for particulars. Thousands of customers have been hoping for a quality motor job that would not cost "an arm and a leg."

Hoffman manufactured motorcycles from 1948 to 1954. A Hathi Trust search confirms that volume 71 of American Bicyclist and Motorcyclist was published in 1950.

In both instances from 1948 and in the instance from 1950, the "arm and a leg" are purely metaphorical.


Conclusions

It follows that "cost an arm and a leg" has been in use in the United States in an exaggerated but literal sense since at least 1908, and in a figurative sense (meaning "expensive") since at least 1948.

2

The story of a painter charging extra is amusing but very unlikely. (I will add that the Dutch Masters did charge for “extras” within the background of a painting, but the basic price did include arms and legs, which presented painters of such skill with no problems.)

OED (updated (OED Third Edition, March 2016).):

Phrases f. colloquial. an arm and a leg: an enormous amount of money; an exorbitant price.

The first recorded instance is surprisingly recent:

1924 Oakland (California) Tribune 21 Nov. a35/6 There is so much interest in the game and so few seats, compared to the number of persons who would almost give an arm or a leg to see it.

It is perhaps significant that the phrase was recorded 6 years after the end of World War I – a time when there would have been many veterans who had lost limbs.

Obviously, the passer-by would feel pity, and not wish to be in the same position – perhaps not even for a large amount of money.

There are later examples, but I don't think that the verb is particularly significant:

1948 N.Y. Times 13 June r3 (advt.) It's very welcome news to hear of a house that doesn't demand an arm and a leg to buy it.

1956 ‘B. Holiday’ & W. Dufty Lady sings Blues xxiv. 224 Finally she found someone who sold her some stuff for an arm and a leg.

1979 Washington Post 6 Nov. b5/1 I acquired good taste over the weekend. And it didn't cost me an arm and a leg.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.