'Break a Leg': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on August 21, 2023

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.'

What Does 'Break a Leg' Mean?

'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.

  • This type of expression is known as a dead metaphor.
    • Dead metaphors are expressions that have been used so much over time that the original imagery of their meaning has been lost.

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.

Where Does 'Break a Leg' Come From?

There are a number of potential origin stories for the idiom 'break a leg.'

These include:

  • Originating from a German phrase that itself comes from a Yiddish phrase
  • Originating as a superstitious practice

Yiddish-German Theory

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.

Superstition Theory

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.

  • In this piece, he says that actually wishing a man good luck before a horse race is considered bad luck.

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.

Emergence in the Entertainment Industry

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.

  • The theory that the phrase came about as a superstitious practice also posits that the expression arose in the U.S. entertainment industry around the same time.

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.

Less Plausible Theories

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.

  • The audience breaking their legs: There are a number of folk theories that state that theatrical audiences in Elizabethan times or even Ancient Greece would bang chair legs or stomp their own legs in order to communicate applause.
  • Referring to David Garrick: The famous 18th-century British actor David Garrick is said to have literally broken his leg during a performance of Richard III. The story goes that he was so entranced in the performance he didn't realize he had fractured a bone.
  • Breaking the leg line: Sometimes, the line that demarcates the edge of the stage where the audience can no longer see performers is referred to as the 'leg line.' If a stand-by crossed this line, it would mean they have the chance to actually perform and get paid for their work. Some even say that the expression comes from the hope that an audience will ask for an encore, causing the performers to "break" the leg line.
  • The performer bowing: Some say that the phrase comes from the bowing or curtsying of a performer to the audience. In this theory, the idea is that the expression is metaphorical in that the performer must bend their leg to bow or curtsy.
  • Referring to John Wilkes Booth: Another popular theory is that the expression comes from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Once an actor, the assassin John Wilkes Booth claims that he broke his leg when he jumped down onto the stage after shooting Lincoln. Though a fascinating theory, the fact that the tradition of actors wishing each other to 'break a leg' didn't seem to begin until the 1920s makes this fairly implausible.

Examples of 'Break a Leg' In Sentences

How would 'break a leg' be used in a sentence?

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • "I really hope your recital goes well tonight. Break a leg!"
  • "John and I had a big fight yesterday, but that didn't stop him from saying he was rooting for me before my show. He even told me to break a leg."
  • "The amateur actor was so new to the industry that he felt a bit offended when an old pro told him to break a leg."
  • "Sarah failed to see the humor in the situation when she fractured her femur after being told to break a leg."
  • "Everyone told me to break a leg before my band performed. It meant a lot that everyone there was so supportive."

Other Ways to Say 'Break a Leg'

What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to 'break a leg'?

Here are some options:

  • Good luck
  • Knock 'em dead
  • Give it your all
  • Knock it out of the park

Final Thoughts About 'Break a Leg'

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!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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