Ever heard the term quoted above, and wondered why anyone would wish someone that?
Well, far from the cruel wish that you think it is, the term actually means to do well or have a great show and is typically used before a stage performance, a show, or an audition. So, how did the term come to be used in this sense?
Like many popular sayings and terms, the origin of break a leg is vague and hotly contested. The term break a leg was used originally, many say, to discourage evil spirits from deliberately causing one’s performance to suffer. According to this theory, wishing someone good luck would be invoking the evil eye – a stare superstitiously believed to cause harm. So in this sense, good luck would actually cause bad luck for the actor. Thus, break a leg by this logic would be a wish for good luck.
According to an edition of the New Statesman, it was mentioned that because it was viewed as unlucky in horse racing to wish someone luck, so “you should say something insulting such as, ‘May you break your leg!” The article further mentions that because theatre people are the second most superstitious group next to those involved in horse racing, it is probable that they too adopted the term and began to use it.
Yet, another article in A Peculiar Treasure by Edna Ferber, implies that in that time “understudies (individuals learning from a mentor) sat in the back row and politely wished their various principals would break a leg”. Thus, they said it hoping the principal actors – who were their mentors – would break their legs so that they [the understudies] could take the lead.
The term break a leg may also be traced back to the time of Shakespeare. In his time, the term meant literally, to bow – by bending at the knee. Since a successful actor would break a leg onstage and receive applause, the phrase would, in effect, be a wish for good luck.
Landing a role in show business is called getting a break, and being newly successful is called breaking into the business. These terms may also be the origins where the break a leg term evolved from.
So as you can see here, the exact origin of break a leg for wishing someone luck is shrouded in uncertainty. But whichever version is true, it seems like it grew in popularity from the idea of wishing bad luck on someone so that they will in turn be given good luck, or in sarcastically wishing them bad luck so that you could take over their role if they indeed broke their leg.
Did You Know?
- Ballet dancers have their own version of break a leg which is also connected to the superstitious concept of not wishing other dancers good luck. They would normally say Merde!