Where The Phrase 'Break A Leg' Came From

As anyone who has ever performed in a community theater production is well aware, telling someone to "break a leg" prior to a performance is not actually meant to curse someone with injury. Instead, it's a way to wish them good luck while they're out there on the stage, especially on opening night. The custom of saying "break a leg" is so common, in fact, it's now used in a variety of contexts, for musicians and actors, but also, just as a way to wish someone well on their way to a job interview, or in some other high pressure scenario. How did it come to pass that telling someone to "break a leg" would mean you were wishing them good luck?

The answer to that question revolves around the world of live theater, where the saying is most often used. Per Reader's Digest, theater culture is highly superstitious. Other examples of superstitious sayings and behaviors include never whistling in a theater, never saying "Macbeth," or that the last person leaving a theater should always leave the light on. For this reason, it's best to understand that while saying "break a leg" really means "good luck," it's also a means of staving off bad luck, because superstitious theater folk believe that wishing someone good luck could, in turn, bring about bad fortune on the stage. This explains what we mean when we say "break a leg." But how and when did "break a leg" and good fortune in a live theatrical performance first become associated?

The days of Shakespeare

Nobody knows exactly when or how the saying "break a leg" came about, but there are a few leading theories. First, involving the 20th century American theater, is an evolution of the German saying "Hals-und Beinbruch," translated as "neck and leg break," which Germans also use as a way to wish someone good fortune, or at the very least, reprieve from any unfortunate accidents. "Hals-und Beinbruch" may itself be rooted in the Hebrew blessing "hatzlakha u-brakha." Unlike the paradoxical nature of "break a leg," "hatzlakha u-brakha" means "success and blessing," according to Reader's Digest. But the two phrases do sound somewhat similar in translation, and "hatzlakha u-brakha" may have become "Hals-und Beinbruch" for humorous effect.

Also plausible? Wishing someone well in their performance by saying "break a leg" might also extend all the way back to the days of William Shakespeare and the Elizabethan theater, according to Transcendence Theatre. Back then, audiences didn't clap their hands, but instead, stomped the legs of their chairs as a way to show appreciation to a performer. Perform well enough, and an audience may just be inspired to break a chair leg in response.

Also notable among many other theories related to the origins of the saying is that in Shakespeare's day, "break a leg" also simply meant to take a bow. In that light, it makes perfect sense to tell someone to break a leg, or that we hope their performance goes well enough they'll be called on for an encore.