‘Cost an Arm and a Leg’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on April 24, 2023

Did someone say to you that something is going to 'cost an arm and a leg' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

In short:

  • The phrase 'cost an arm and a leg' means that something is very expensive.

What Does 'Cost an Arm and a Leg' Mean?

If you hear someone say that something is going to 'cost an arm and a leg,' it means that whatever is being sold for a high price. In some cases, it might be used to describe an amount of money that is truly exorbitant.

  • In some cases, you might see the phrase 'an arm and a leg' come after 'charge,' 'spend,' or 'pay,' but 'cost' is the most common verb used.

The idea is that no one would consider trading their limbs for just about any dollar figure. So if something 'costs an arm and a leg' it means that it costs far more money than one is willing to part ways with.

Where Does 'Cost an Arm and a Leg' Come From?

There are a number of myths surrounding the origin of the idiom 'cost an arm and a leg,' one of which has to do with portrait painters in the past. The idea is that the cheapest option for a portrait painting was to only have one's head and shoulders painted. The story goes that including the arms was even more expensive, and a painting with 'legs and all' was the most high-priced option.

Though fascinating and widely told, this story actually isn't true. Though larger paintings certainly would cost a person more, there isn't any evidence that points to the cost being related to the limbs included in the portrait.

The American Origin of 'Cost an Arm and a Leg'

The actual etymology of the phrase can be traced back to America sometime after World War II. One of the first mentions of the phrase that can be found in print appears in 1949 in The Long Beach Independent:

Food Editor Beulah Karney has more than 10 ideas for the homemaker who wants to say "Merry Christmas" and not have it cost her an arm and a leg.

After World War II, US newspapers often reported on soldiers that had lost an arm and a leg during service. Some believe that the high cost of amputation is where the phrase comes from.

However, another potential explanation is that the phrase comes from two earlier phrases that were coined in the 1800s:

    • "Even if it takes a leg."
    • "I would give my right arm for..."

An example of the second phrase can be found in Sharpe's London Journal from 1849:

"He felt as if he could gladly give his right arm to be cut off if it would make him, at once, old enough to go and earn money instead of Lizzy."

An early example of the phrase 'even if it takes a leg' can be found in an 1875 edition of the Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye, a local Iowa newspaper:

"A man who owes five years subscription to the Gazette is trying to stop his paper without paying up, and the editor is going to grab that back pay if it takes a leg."

Examples of 'Cost an Arm and a Leg' In Sentences

How would 'cost an arm and a leg' be used in a sentence?

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • "I cannot believe my co-worker bought that car on his salary. It must have cost an arm and a leg!"
  • "My daughter has developed a deep appreciation for fine fashion. Unfortunately, she is always asking me if she can buy clothing that costs an arm and a leg!"
  • "They decided to skip the engagement ring when they decided to get married, choosing to put their savings toward a down payment rather than buying a piece of jewelry that cost an arm and a leg."
  • "We used to love traveling around the country, but with the price of gas, hotels, and eating out, we've found we just can't afford it anymore. I'm telling you, everything costs an arm and a leg these days!"
  • "They were auctioning off a guitar from a famous musician, and they were asking an arm and a leg for it."

Other Ways to Say 'Cost an Arm and a Leg'

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

Here are some options:

  • Cost a small fortune
  • A rip-off
  • A highway robbery
  • Overpriced
  • Too rich for my blood
  • Pricey
  • Exorbitant
  • Costly
  • Astronomical

Final Thoughts About 'Cost an Arm and a Leg'

If something 'costs an arm and a leg,' it means that it is very expensive and perhaps even significantly overpriced. The implication is that in order to purchase this product or service, the person would have to give up something as valuable as their own limbs.

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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