The phrase “break a leg” is a common idiom used to wish performers, such as actors or musicians, good luck before they go on stage to perform. Despite its seemingly negative connotation, the phrase is actually intended as a well-wishing expression of good luck rather than a literal wish for harm.
The origin of this phrase is uncertain, and there are several theories about its historical roots. One theory suggests that saying “good luck” directly to performers was considered bad luck, as it might invite actual misfortune. By saying the opposite, like “break a leg,” it was believed to counteract the potential jinx.
The urbane Irish nationalist Robert Wilson Lynd published an article, “A Defence of Superstition”, in the October 1, 1921 edition of the New Statesman, a British liberal political and cultural magazine, regarding the theatre as the second-most superstitious institution in England, after horse racing. In horse racing, Lynd asserted that to wish a man luck is considered unlucky and so “You should say something insulting such as, ‘May you break your leg!'”
In theater traditions, actors often take a bow after a successful performance. “Breaking a leg” might be a metaphorical way of encouraging actors to take numerous bows, signifying that they would have an exceptional performance and receive applause from the audience. Another theory ties the phrase to the works of William Shakespeare. In Elizabethan theater, it was customary for audiences to clap or stomp their feet (“break legs”) to show appreciation for a great performance.
This theatrical expression originated in Music Hall / Vaudeville days around the 1800’s. Producers would have on stand-by as many different acts as possible to fill the bill. It was not viable to pay every act, so if they didn’t actually appear on stage, or get to break the visual plane of the leg line (wing masking), they received no fee “Break A Leg’ became a good luck wish that you would be paid for a performance.
Some suggest the phrase comes from the German phrase “Hals und Beinbruch,” which translates to “break your neck and leg.” Over time, the phrase might have been shortened and changed to its current form. It’s important to note that these are just theories, and the exact origin of the phrase remains unclear. The idiom has become so ingrained in performance culture that it is now used worldwide, regardless of its specific origins.
- Robert Wilson Lynd (1879-1949) was an influential and urbane Irish nationalist known for his wit, literary talent, and fervent advocacy for Irish independence. Born in Belfast, Lynd’s early life was marked by a passion for literature and journalism. He joined the Belfast Newsletter as a journalist and later became a prominent literary critic for the Daily News in London. Lynd’s literary prowess was matched by his dedication to Irish nationalism, and he played a key role in promoting Irish literature and culture during a critical period in Ireland’s history. His numerous essays and articles on Irish politics, society, and literature resonated with readers, both in Ireland and abroad. Lynd’s thought-provoking and eloquent writing style left a lasting impact on the Irish nationalist movement. He was also a member of the Irish Senate from 1925 to 1936. His works include “Home Life in Ireland,” “The Art of Letters,” and “The Pleasures of Ignorance.” [Back]
- The New Statesman is a prestigious British left-leaning political and cultural magazine founded in 1913. The publication has a long and distinguished history of providing insightful and progressive commentary on politics, current affairs, literature, and the arts. Over the years, it has been a platform for influential writers, thinkers, and journalists to share their perspectives on a wide range of topics, fostering intellectual debate and critical analysis. The New Statesman has played a significant role in shaping public discourse in the United Kingdom and beyond, and its coverage has expanded to address global issues and challenges. With its commitment to independent journalism and a progressive agenda, the magazine continues to be a prominent voice in the media landscape. [Back]
- In the Music Hall and Vaudeville days, the “leg line” referred to a theatrical stage masking technique used to hide the wings and backstage area from the audience’s view. The leg line, also known as “wing masking,” involved the use of curtains or vertical panels called “legs” that were positioned at the sides of the stage. These legs would extend from the proscenium arch (the front edge of the stage) towards the backstage area, effectively concealing the offstage space from the audience’s perspective. The purpose of this masking was to create a neater and more visually appealing stage presentation by hiding the backstage clutter and creating a cleaner visual boundary for the audience’s focus. Additionally, the leg line also allowed for quick and discreet set changes and entrances/exits of performers, enhancing the overall flow of the show. This stagecraft technique was widely used during the Music Hall and Vaudeville eras, contributing to the seamless and polished performances that were characteristic of those entertainment forms. [Back]
- “Meet the Artist: Warren Miller” (May 13, 2010) https://cartoonbank.wordpress.com/2010/05/13/warren-miller-interview/
- Martin, G. (2008). The meaning and origin of the expression: Break a leg. The Phrase Finder. Retrieved from https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/break-a-leg.html
- CLASSICAL 101 | Why We Say “Break A Leg” (December 15, 2018) https://www.ludwig-van.com/toronto/2018/12/15/classical-101-the-sorted-origins-of-break-a-leg/
- “About Us” – New Statesman, www.newstatesman.com/about-us
- “Robert Lynd” – Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/biography/Robert-Lynd