Break a leg

Break a leg

"Break a leg" is a well-known idiom in theatre which means "good luck." It is typically said to actors and musicians before they go on stage to perform. The origin of the phrase is obscure.[1]

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 phrase "break a leg" is replaced with "merde".[2]



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".[3] 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.'"[4] There is anecdotal evidence from theatrical memoirs and personal letters as early as the 1920s.[5][6]

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.

Opposite meaning

People in theatre consider it bad luck to wish an actor good luck, so instead they wish the opposite, by saying "break a leg!".[7][8][9]

On October 1, 1921 in the New Statesman, a British liberal political and cultural magazine, an article was published, "A Defense of Superstition", written by urbane Irish nationalist Robert Wilson Lynd. Lynd said that the theatre was 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!'"[10]


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.[11]

Greek origin

In the time of Ancient Greece, people didn't applaud. 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.[12]

Roman origin

In the time of Ancient Rome, gladiators would fight to the death as a form of popular entertainment in the colosseum.[13] Spectators would sometimes shout "quasso cruris," the Latin equivalent of "break a leg." This essentially would be wishing them "good luck" by requesting they keep their lives and only cripple the other opponent by breaking his leg.

Yiddish origin

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 near similar pronunciation.[14]

German origin

The phrase has been adopted from German into Polish language as "połamania nóg," "breaking of legs," with the word "połamanie," meaning fracturing, "połamania" being the genitive case. In Polish, "życzyć" "to wish," governs the genitive case, thus the underlying structure is "życzę ci połamania nóg," roughly translated as "I wish you a fracture of the legs." Both in German and Polish, the phrase is most typically used to wish an actor good luck before a performance, or a student good luck before an exam.

Pilots of the German Air Force in the First World War are recorded in the autobiography of Manfred von Richthofen as using the phrase "Hals- und Beinbruch" (breaking of the neck and leg) to wish each other luck before a flight[11].

Lincoln theory

One popular, but false, etymology derives the phrase from the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln.[15] 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.[6][16] 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.[17]


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.[5][11][18]
  • To get a leg up, and catch your big / lucky break.[5][11]

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.[19]

Alternate terms

Professional dancers do not wish each other good luck by saying "break a leg"; instead they say "Merde!", the French word for "shit".[2] In turn, theater people have picked up this usage and may wish each other "merde", alone or in combination with "break a leg".

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). It was said that saliva 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.")[20]

In Australia, the term "chookas" can be used instead. 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.[21] 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.

See also


  1. ^ Urdang, Laurence; Hunsinger, Walter W.; LaRoche, Nancy (1985). Picturesque Expressions: A thematic dictionary (2 ed.). Gale Research. p. 321. ISBN 0810316064. 
  2. ^ a b McConnell, Joan; McConnell, Teena (1977). Ballet as body language. Harper & Row. ISBN 0060129646. 
  3. ^ Ferber, Edna (1939). A Peculiar Treasure. Doubleday, Doran & Co. p. 354.
  4. ^ Sobel, Bernard (1948). The Theatre Handbook and Digest of Plays. Crown Publishers, p. 722.
  5. ^ a b c "Break a Leg". World Wide Words. Retrieved 2007-04-24. 
  6. ^ a b "Break a Leg". Retrieved 2007-04-24. 
  7. ^ Libby, Steve (July 1985). "It's a superstitious world: Of black cats, lucky numbers, broken mirrors...". The Rotarian. pp. 30–31. ISSN 0035-838X. 
  8. ^ Peterson, Lenka; O'Connor, Dan (2006). Kids Take the Stage: Helping Young People Discover the Creative Outlet of Theater (2 ed.). Random House Digital. p. 203. ISBN 0823077462. 
  9. ^ Helterbran, Valeri R. (2008). Exploring Idioms: A Critical-Thinking Resource for Grades 4–8. Maupin House Publishing. p. 24. ISBN 1934338141. 
  10. ^ A Defense of Superstition. 311. 1921. p. 427.  As published in The New Statesman, October 1, 1921.
  11. ^ a b c d "Break a leg". 2010. Retrieved 2010-03-29. 
  12. ^ "Theatre Superstitions". Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Retrieved 2006-11-07. 
  13. ^ "Roman gladiators; roman history, roman civilization". Bates College. Retrieved 2006-12-24. 
  14. ^ Mark Israel, 'Phrase Origins: "Break a leg!"', The alt.usage.english FAQ file,(line 4544), (29 Sept 1997)
  15. ^ Wilton, Dave. "Break a leg". Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2011-04-13. 
  16. ^ "Re: Break a Leg". Retrieved 2007-04-24. 
  17. ^ Kauffman, Michael W. (2004). John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies. American Brutus. ISBN 0-375-75974-3. 
  18. ^ "Break A Leg". Retrieved 2010-03-29. 
  19. ^ Tom Dale Keever (1995-12-18). "Richard III as rewritten by Colley Cibber". Primary Texts and Secondary Sources On-line. Richard III Society—American Branch. Retrieved 2008-04-11. 
  20. ^ "Spit Your Way To Safety: Toi, toi, toi!". Forward Association, Inc.. 11 February 2009. Retrieved 2010-03-29. 
  21. ^ "Chookas!", 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

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • break a leg — (theatre) A phrase used to wish someone good luck • • • Main Entry: ↑break * * * break a leg spoken phrase used for wishing someone good luck Thesaurus: ways of wishing someone lucksynonym luck and luckiness …   Useful english dictionary

  • break a leg! — ► break a leg! theatrical slang good luck! Main Entry: ↑break …   English terms dictionary

  • break a leg — This idiom is a way of wishing someone good luck …   The small dictionary of idiomes

  • Break a leg! — exclam. Good luck! (A special theatrical way of wishing a performer good luck. Saying good luck is considered to be a jinx.) □ “Break a leg!” shouted the tage manager to the heroine. □ Let’s all go and do our best. Break a leg! …   Dictionary of American slang and colloquial expressions

  • break a leg — verb To perform well in a theatrical production or comparable endeavor. Go out there and break a leg tonight. Put on a great show! …   Wiktionary

  • break a leg! —    This is a humorous way of wishing someone good luck, especially among stage performers.     So tonight s the opening night? Break a leg! …   English Idioms & idiomatic expressions

  • break a leg — good luck, have a good performance    Break a leg! she whispered as he walked on the stage …   English idioms

  • Break a leg! — something that you say to wish someone good luck, especially before they perform in the theatre. Tonight s the first night of the play. Is it? Well, break a leg! (usually an order) …   New idioms dictionary

  • break a leg! — theatrical slang good luck! * * * break a ˈleg! idiom (informal) used to wish sb good luck Main entry: ↑legidiom …   Useful english dictionary

  • break a leg! — theatrical slang good luck! → break …   English new terms dictionary

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