Dear Straight Dope:
Where did the term "break a leg" originate in theater, and why is it considered a better alternative than "good luck"?
SDStaff Ken replies:
“Break a leg,” is, of course, what way actors wish each other instead of “good luck” before a performance. The expression has been common among the thespian crowd since the early 1900s.
There are a number of theories about the origin. The most colorful is that the phrase refers to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by actor John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater, when Booth jumped from Lincoln’s box to the stage, breaking his leg. However, the phrase was first recorded in print in the early 1900s, and is unlikely to refer to an incident half a century earlier.
Eric Partridge, in his Dictionary of Catchphrases, suggests that “break a leg” originated as a translation of a similar expression used by German actors: Hals- und Beinbruch (literally, “a broken neck and a broken leg.”) The German phrase traces back to early aviators, possibly during World War I, spreading gradually to the German stage and then to British and American theaters.
Why would people twist a wish for dreadful injury into one for good luck? Evan Morris, of www.word-detective.com, suggests that, “Popular folklore down through the ages is full of warnings against wishing your friends good luck. To do so is to tempt evil spirits or demons to do your friend harm. Better to outwit the demons (who must be rather dim, it seems to me) by wishing your friend bad fortune.”
Morris goes on to cite the stage directions for the opening night a few years ago of the reconstructed Globe Theater in London, which “supposedly called for two actors to swing dramatically from a balcony down to the stage on ropes. One of the actors slipped and, you guessed it, broke his leg.”
Straight Dope Staff Dex wants to add that it’s not wise to use the phrase outside of the theatre. He was having a conversation with a cantor, about to lead a religious service for 1,000 people, and he smiled, “Break a leg.” The cantor wasn’t familiar with the phrase or with the theatre tradition, and Dex says the look he got would have withered an artichoke.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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