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Word and Phrase Origins

What is the origin of saying Break a Leg before a performance?

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2010-08-31 16:28:10

Some actors used to be, and still are, very supertitious,

Therefore, instead of saying ''Good luck'' (they thought they would

jinx themselves if they did this) they would say ''Break a leg''.

Though they really meant to say ''Good Luck''.

There is a superstition in the theatre, and other performing

arts, that to wish someone "good luck" before a performance will

bring bad luck! Instead, it is customary to say "break a leg!"

The 'leg' is part of the curtain that comes up and down after a

finale. Extreme use of the 'leg' could cause it to break. When the

audience carry on clapping and shouting after the finale in a show,

the curtain comes back up and then down again, too much of this

action could cause the 'leg' to break.

The expression "break a leg" means to do well at a show. The

curtain itself is big so it is supported by different mechanics.

These mechanics rest on "legs". At the end of a show, the actor

comes out for an ovation (hopefully). The curtain opens and closes

every time there's an ovation. So, saying break a leg means to have

the audience keep clapping for ovations so much that the curtains

legs will break.

Two other possibilities; The word 'break' has many meanings -

the OED lists 57 distinct uses of it as a verb alone. That gives

considerable scope for speculation over what is meant by the

phrase. The most common interpretation of 'break' in this context

is, 'to deviate from a straight line', as in the cricketing term,

'off break'. That is, unstraighten the leg by bending at the knee,

by bowing or curtseying.

Or perhaps it comes from a German saying, 'Hals und Beinbruch',

meaning 'break your neck and leg', which dates back to at least

WWII, as Luftwaffe slang, and is therefore earlier than any known

English version. It may be that this is a corruption of the Hebrew

blessing, 'hatzlakha u-brakha', meaning 'success and blessing'.

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