Did someone tell you to 'break a leg' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.
The phrase 'break a leg' is commonly used in order to wish good luck to a performer before they go on stage. Rather than actually saying 'good luck,' the tradition is to tell them to 'break a leg.'
'Break a leg' is an English idiom that is used to wish performers good luck in theater or another performing arts event. It's very common to tell a musician or an actor to 'break a leg' before they are auditioning or performing on stage.
There is also a much older meaning of the phrase that dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries. It is thought that the meaning of 'break a leg' to indicate having 'a bastard/natural child' is unrelated in its origin. This meaning isn't commonly used in the modern day.
There are a number of potential origin stories for the idiom 'break a leg.'
Etymologists and other scholars largely believe that the phrase came from a loan translation of a German phrase. This phrase-- Hals- und Beinbruch-- translates literally to "neck and leg (bone) break."
The German phrase actually comes from a Yiddish phrase-- hatsloche un broche-- which literally means 'success and blessing.' The German version is a pun based on the sound of the Yiddish phrase.
It is said that Luftwaffe pilots would use the German phrase as a way to wish luck to one another. The phrase in German still means 'good luck' in a way that isn't only in reference to the entertainment industry.
Another theory is that the expression reflects a now-forgotten superstition. In "A Defence of Superstion" from 1921, Robert Wilson Lynd claims that the theater industry was second only to horse racing when it comes to superstitious English institutions.
For this reason, he says that:
"You should say something insulting such as, 'May you break your leg!'"
Some believe that wishing someone good luck by saying 'break a leg' comes from a superstitious belief that it is bad luck to wish someone good luck. In order to wish someone good luck without actually doing so, this ironically opposite seeming phrase is employed.
The theory about the German phrase deriving from a Yiddish phrase suggests that it was first used in German aviation and then transferred to German society at large.
As early as the 1920s, it is thought that the expression became a part of British and American theater. One explanation of how this could have happened is that German-speaking Jewish immigrants arrived after World War I and entered the American entertainment industry.
We find an early example of this idiom in writing within the context of the theater industry in Edna Ferber's autobiography from 1939, A Peculiar Treasure. In this tale of the American author's life, she writes:
"...all the understudies sitting in the back row politely wishing the various principals would break a leg."
The superstition of saying 'I hope you break a leg' in order to wish each other good luck is also recorded in the 1948 The Theatre Handbook and Digest of Plays by Bernard Sobel. In personal letters and theatrical memoirs, there is additional anecdotal evidence of the use of the phrase as early as the 1920s.
A number of other theories have emerged about the origin of this idiom. Though several of them are quite possible, they are considered to be implausible by many etymologists and scholars.
How would 'break a leg' be used in a sentence?
Let’s take a look at some examples:
What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to 'break a leg'?
Here are some options:
The idiom 'break a leg' is used to wish someone good luck before they participate in a performance of some sort. It's a very common tradition to tell an actor or musician to 'break' a leg before they go out on stage.
There are a number of fascinating theories about the origin of this expression. However, the most likely theory is that the phrase emerged in the early 20th-century entertainment industry after German-speaking Jews introduced a similar common German phrase.
Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!