When someone is about to perform on stage, you say, "Break a leg!" But why would you say something that sounds so violent — and where did this odd expression come from? Learn all about the "break a leg" meaning, origin and use in modern conversation.
Break a Leg: Meaning and Origin of a Common Idiom
Break a Leg Meaning
When you tell someone to "break a leg," you're wishing them luck. It's an idiom that's mainly used for wishing an actor a great and successful show. If you weren't familiar with the expression's positive connotation, you would think that the phrase sounds more like a threat than a supportive comment. But actually, actors consider the phrase "Good luck" to be much scarier than "Break a leg!"
Break a Leg Origin
There are several possible origins to this common but odd expression. Like many theatre superstitions, "break a leg" began in the early days of drama and stage performance, possibly as far back as ancient Greece. However, it's become such a regular part of theatre life that no one really knows exactly where it started.
Possible Historical Origins
The first written account of the phrase came from Irish writer Robert Wilson Lynd's 1921 essay titled "A Defence of Superstition." It described the most superstitious arenas in Britain at the time: theatre and horse racing. Lynd explained that wishing a man luck in horse racing was actually unlucky. “You should say something insulting such as, 'May you break your leg!'” he suggested.
Another possible origin for "break a leg" comes from the Yiddish phrase for wishing success, "הצלחה און ברכה." The Hebrew translation, hatzlacha u-bracha, became Hals- und Beinbruch ("broken neck and leg") when adopted in German due to its similar pronunciation. Both English and German pilots used the phrase in World War I to wish each other luck on a mission.
Origins in Theatre
Bernard Sobel's 1948 Theatre Handbook and Digest of Play explained that actors never said "Good luck," only "I hope you break a leg." Although it was the first time the phrase appeared in print in the theatre world, it certainly wasn't the first time actors said it to each other. There are many possible origins to "break a leg" in the history of theatre.
- wishing for the opposite - An ancient superstition claims that if you really want something, you need to wish for the opposite. When actors really wanted a successful show, they'd wish for the worst possible outcome.
- stomping vs. clapping - Ancient Greek audiences stomped their feet instead of clapping. By wishing an actor to "break a leg," they meant that the show would be so successful that an audience member would stomp so hard they'd break their own leg (perhaps not literally).
- breaking a chair leg - Later audiences, including audiences in Shakespearean plays, would stomp their chairs. A great show meant that at least one chair leg would be broken by the end of the night.
- breaking the leg line - Early actors would line up in hopes to be chosen for that night's performances. When they'd make it on stage, they were known as "breaking the leg line."
- curtsies and bows - Some believe that "break a leg" comes from the way actors' legs bend when they are curtsying or bowing at the end of a good show. A very good show would certainly result in lots of bowing!
- wishful understudies - Edna Ferber's A Peculiar Treasure from 1939 recounts the way understudies would sit in the back row "politely wishing the various principals would break a leg." That way, they'd get to act the part instead.
- the literal broken leg - One theatre legend comes from 18th-century actor David Garrick. His performance of Richard III was so captivating that he didn't even notice his own broken leg — and he finished the entire show!
More Theatre Expressions for Good Luck
If you want to wish an actor a good show, there are more ways to do it than saying, "break a leg." Check out these additional theatre expressions that wish someone a good show. (But whatever you do, don't say "good luck" — as seen in the song "Bad Luck to Say Good Luck on Opening Night" from The Producers).
- merde - When a show was successful, there would be many horse-driven carriages outside, resulting in lots of horse poop on the street. French dancers still wish each other merde (French for sh**) before a show. In Spanish, it's mucha mierda; in Portuguese, you say muita merda.
- toi toi toi - Opera singers recite toi toi toi as a superstitious way to ward off an evil spell. The phrase sounds like spitting, an ancient way to frighten off spirits, or warning the devil away (Teufel). It could also come from the Yiddish word tov meaning "good."
- in bocca al lupo - To wish an Italian performer luck, say in bocca al lupo ("in the mouth of the wolf") They'll call back crepi! ("may it die") It refers to Italian hunters who wished each other luck and not ending up eaten by a wolf.
- chookas - Australian performers used to assess the crowd to determine how they would eat that night. A small crowd meant a small meal, but a large crowd meant chooka (chicken). Chookas is slang for "Chooka it is!"
Using Break a Leg in Conversation
Even though it is most commonly used in theatre, the "break a leg" idiom has made its way into everyday conversation. It's a way to wish someone luck before a big moment. The exception would be sports — not many athletes want to hear the words "break" and "leg" before a game!
Other ways to use "break a leg" include:
- Break a leg on that math test today!
- I heard you're presenting to the boss is this afternoon. Break a leg!
- Hope you break a leg at your concert tomorrow night!
- You'll need to ask Mr. Thompson for permission; break a leg with that!
- Tell Gina to break a leg at her college interview!
Other Idioms to Wish Luck
Want to wish someone luck without mentioning fractured bones? Stick to "break a leg" for actors, but try out these additional idioms before someone has an important event offstage.
- fingers crossed
- knock 'em dead
- blow them away
- throw salt over your shoulder
- knock on wood/touch wood
- from your lips (to God's ears)
Idioms Are Everywhere
Whether you're a classical actor waiting to take the stage in Hamlet or you're nervously waiting for an important job interview, the phrase "break a leg" is meant to bring you good luck. It's just one English idiom with many possible origins and a steady place in our vocabulary. For more idiom explanations, learn the meaning of "it's raining cats and dogs." Or, see how much you already know about the phrase "dead as a doornail."