Break a leg
"Break a leg" is an idiom in theatre used to wish a performer "good luck" in an ironic way. Well-wishers typically say "Break a leg" to actors and musicians before they go on stage to perform. The origin of the phrase remains obscure.
The expression 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 traditional saying is not "break a leg," but "merde".
Urbane Irish nationalist Robert Wilson Lynd published an article, "A Defence of Superstition", in the 1 October 1921 edition of the New Statesman, a British liberal political and cultural magazine. Lynd regarded the theatre as the second-most superstitious institution in England, after horse racing. In horse racing, Lynd asserted, to wish a man luck is considered unlucky, so "You should say something insulting such as, 'May you break your leg!'" Lynd did not attribute the phrase in any way to theatre people, though he was familiar with many of them and frequently mingled with actors backstage.
The earliest known example in print is from Edna Ferber's 1939 A Peculiar Treasure in which she writes about the fascination of the theater, "...and all the understudies sitting in the back row politely wishing the various principals would break a leg". In Bernard Sobel's 1948 The Theatre Handbook and Digest of Plays, he writes about theatrical superstitions: "...before a performance actors never wish each other good luck, but say 'I hope you break a leg.'" There is anecdotal evidence from theatrical memoirs and personal letters as early as the 1920s.
There are several theories behind the origin of the phrase. Few are supported by contemporary writings. The theories listed below are some of the more popular explanations.
To "break the leg" or "break a leg" is archaic slang for bowing or curtsying; placing one foot behind the other and bending at the knee "breaks" the line of the leg. In theatre, pleased audiences may applaud for an extended time allowing the cast to take multiple curtain calls, bowing to the audience.
In the time of Ancient Greece, people didn't clap. 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.
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 its similar pronunciation. The autobiography of Manfred von Richthofen records pilots of the German air force during the First World War as using the phrase "Hals- und Beinbruch" (neck and leg fracture) to wish each other luck before a flight. The phrase is now most typically used to wish an actor good luck before a performance, or a student good luck before an exam.
One popular, but false, etymology derives the phrase from the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The story goes that John Wilkes Booth, the actor turned assassin, claimed in his diary that he broke his leg leaping to the stage of Ford's Theatre after murdering the President. While Booth's roles as an actor are not well remembered, wishing an actor to "break a leg" is to wish them a performance worthy of remembrance. However, the fact that actors did not start wishing each other to "break a leg" until the 1920s (more than 50 years later) makes this an unlikely source. Furthermore the phrase has distinct origins in other languages that well predate the late 19th century. Also, some historians contend that he broke his leg when he fell from his horse trying to escape. They also cite that Booth often exaggerated and falsified his diary entries to make them more dramatic.
There are many non-literal references this expression could be referring to.
- Another popular alternative theory concerning the physical "legs," or side curtains, of the theatre proposes that the company of actors should rush onstage through the curtains to take a considerable amount of bows, thus "breaking a leg (side curtain)" in the process.
- To get a leg up, and catch your big / lucky break.
Richard III theory
Some attribute the line to a performance of Shakespeare's Richard III, where the famed 18th century British actor, David Garrick, became so entranced in the performance that he was unaware of a fracture.
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, stage curtain 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.
Professional dancers do not wish each other good luck by saying "break a leg"; instead they say "Merde!", the French word for "shit". In turn, theater people have picked up this usage and may wish each other "merde", alone or in combination with "break a leg". In Spanish, the phrase is "mucha mierda", or "lots of shit". This term may have arisen in response to the audience's shoes inadvertently dragging horse and dog droppings from city streets into theater lobbies during the days of horse-drawn transportation
Opera singers use "Toi toi toi", an idiom used to ward off a spell or hex, often accompanied by knocking on wood, and onomatopoeic, spitting (or imitating the sound of spitting). Saliva traditionally had demon-banishing powers. From Rotwelsch tof, from Yiddish tov ("good", derived from the Hebrew טוב and with phonetic similarities to the Old German word for "Devil.") One explanation sees "toi toi toi" as the onomatopoeic rendition of spitting three times. Spitting three times over someone's head or shoulder is a gesture to ward off evil spirits. A similar-sounding expression for verbal spitting occurs in modern Hebrew as "Tfu, tfu" (here, only twice), which some say that Hebrew-speakers borrowed from Russian.
An alternate operatic good luck charm, originating from Italy, is the phrase "in bocca al lupo!" ("In the mouth of the wolf") with the response "Crepi il lupo!" ("May the wolf die") (see Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Myth & Legend).
In Australia, the term "chookas" has been used also. According to one oral tradition, one of the performers would check audience numbers. If there were not many in the seats, the performers would have bread to eat following the performance. If the theatre was full they could then have "chooks" — Australian slang for chicken — for dinner. Therefore, if it was a full house, the performer would call out "Chookas!" It is now used by performers prior to a show regardless of the number of patrons; and may be a wish for a successful turnout.
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- A Defense of Superstition. The Living Age. 311. 1921. p. 427. As published in The New Statesman, 1 October 1921.
- Ferber, Edna (1939). A Peculiar Treasure. Doubleday, Doran & Co. p. 354.
- Sobel, Bernard (1948). The Theatre Handbook and Digest of Plays. Crown Publishers, p. 722.
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- The QI Elves. "No Such Thing As The Ugly Panda". No Such Thing as a Fish (62). Quite Interesting Ltd. Retrieved 7 June 2015.
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- "Word of the Day / Jook ג׳וק A grisly load from Russian.". Haaretz online, 18 August 2013.
- "Chookas!" Archived 8 August 2011 at the Wayback Machine., By Colin Peasley, manager, Education Programme for The Australian Ballet
- Bevington, David. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Fifth Edition. United States: Longman; 5 edition, 2003
|Look up break a leg in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Break a Leg - Glossary of Technical Theatre Terms (With many explanations as to the origins of the term)
- Ask Yahoo - "Where did the expression "break a leg" come from?"
- Break a Leg, and Other Good Wishes, by Matthew Alice, in the San Diego Reader.
- Break a Leg by Gary Martin, phrases.org.uk, 1996 - 2006.
- Resource on Ortaoyunu