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The origin of the term “break a leg” in the acting world is much disputed. What is known is that it is a wish of good luck, applied only to actors, and not to other theater workers. Stagehands are basically told, “Don’t mess up,” though the word “mess” is often replaced with a more popular four-letter word.
The superstitious interpret the phrase as a way to discourage evil spirits from deliberately causing one’s performance to suffer. Actually wishing someone good luck on the other hand, would be evoking the evil eye. Thus expressing “good luck,” may actually cause bad luck for the actor.
The term may be traced in origin to Elizabethan language. To break a leg in Shakespeare’s time literally meant to bow, while bending the knee. Since only a successful actor would bow on stage and receive applause, this phrase would have, in effect, been a wish of good luck and good performance to the actor. However, in the 16th century, the phrase also meant to give birth to an illegitimate child, which is hard to connect to the theatrical world.
Others trace “break a leg” to the tradition of the audiences of Classical Greece. Instead of applauding actors, audiences would stomp their feet. Stamping to the point where one would actually hurt himself is unlikely. Vigorous stomping sounds, however, expressed greater appreciation for the performance of the actor. Causing people to pound their feet so hard that they would injure themselves would indeed signify accomplishment in acting.
More rooted in the tradition of superstitious reasons for wishing that someone might “break a leg,” relates to John Wilkes Booth leaping to the stage at the Ford Theater after firing the shots that would assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. In the jump, he actually broke a leg. However, his performance as an assassin is clearly not enviable, unless it is later connected to the comedians’ concept of “killing” an audience, which means being successful.
The saying may also be attributed to the film and play 42nd Street. In the script, Peggy Sawyer is given the opportunity to play the lead in the production because she is the understudy of the star who actually breaks her leg and cannot go on. Peggy’s performance is hailed as a success.
Landing parts is often termed as getting a “break” in show business. Being successful is referred to as breaking into show business. The term “break a leg” may also then be connected to one making a successful entrance into the world of acting.
Another possible construction is the German phrase Hals un Beinbruch, translated to "happy landings" in English. Both German and English pilots used the term, which translates literally to breaking all one’s bones. Actors may have adopted this, as the phrase was clearly in use in the 1920s after WWI.
Ballet dancers have their own version of of the phrase, which connects to the superstitious concept of not wishing other dancers good luck. They say merde! which literally translates to a well known four letter word for excrement in English. This term seems more expressive of not evoking ill-luck but as well may imply feelings related to stage fright or anxiety about performance.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the origin of the phrase "break a leg" in theater?
The phrase "break a leg" is steeped in theatrical superstition and has several possible origins. One theory suggests that it stems from the belief that wishing someone good luck would actually bring bad luck, due to mischievous spirits in the theater. Therefore, saying the opposite, such as "break a leg," was intended to outwit these spirits. Another theory relates to the act of bowing or curtsying, where 'breaking' the leg refers to bending one's leg while taking a bow, implying a successful performance that merits applause.
Is "break a leg" used in other professions or only in theater?
While "break a leg" is most commonly associated with theater, variations of this idiom have been adopted in other performance-based professions, such as dance and music. However, its use is most prevalent and recognized in the theatrical community, where it remains a traditional way to wish performers good luck without saying those exact words, which is considered bad luck in the superstitious world of theater.
Are there any notable instances where "break a leg" was used historically?
Historical instances of the phrase "break a leg" are difficult to pinpoint with precision, but it has been part of theater vernacular for many decades. The phrase gained widespread popularity in the 20th century, particularly in the United States. Notable instances often occur anecdotally, with actors recounting stories of being told to "break a leg" before memorable performances or career-defining roles.
How do actors feel about the phrase "break a leg"?
Many actors embrace the phrase "break a leg" as a cherished tradition and a sign of camaraderie within the theater community. It serves as a good luck charm and a reminder of the unique culture of the performing arts. While some may view it as merely a quirky saying, for others, it holds sentimental value and is an integral part of the pre-show ritual.
Has the meaning of "break a leg" evolved over time?
The core sentiment behind "break a leg" as a way to wish an actor good luck without invoking bad luck has remained consistent over time. However, the phrase has also come to symbolize the resilience and determination of actors, acknowledging the challenges and unpredictability of live performance. It reflects a shared understanding that, despite the risks, performers will give their all to deliver a great show.