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shameless pleading

Break a leg

Putting the “duck” in “deductibile.”

Dear Word Detective: This one has been bothering me for years, but I keep forgetting to write and ask you. Why do actors say “break a leg” to each other right before they go on stage? What’s wrong with “good luck”? Is it true that this “break a leg” tradition dates back to when John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln? — Cindy S.

How odd. Yours is the second question about “break a leg” I’ve received this week. What makes that odd is that, seven or eight years ago, I used to get this question at least once a month, but there’s been not a peep from the “break a leg” brigade since then. I guess these things travel in waves. Maybe certain questions are like comets orbiting the sun. Anyway, I just hope I don’t wake up tomorrow to find my email program clogged with another tsunami of impassioned pleas to reveal “the third word that ends in ‘gry’.” (Let me save us both the trouble. There isn’t one. It’s all a very old, and very lame, joke.)

bills09Onward. “Break a leg” is, of course, a saying traditionally employed by actors to wish each other success before going on stage. To call “break a leg” a funny way to wish someone good luck is an understatement. We don’t shout “Hit a tree!” as our friends drive away, or “Have fun with the iceberg!” when they embark on a cruise. For an actor, especially one in a stage role, breaking a leg would be a major disaster.

The story about John Wilkes Booth and Lincoln is certainly the most popular legend purporting to explain “break a leg.” It’s true that Booth was a famous actor in 1865, and it’s also true that after shooting President Lincoln in Ford’s Theater, Booth leaped from the President’s box to the stage below, breaking his leg. But there are two enormous problems with tracing “break a leg” to this event. First is the fact that “break a leg” is not found in print before 1957, and the phrase almost certainly wasn’t used before the early 20th century. Secondly, the events at Ford’s Theater that night would strike most sane people as the polar opposite of good luck for all concerned.

There are other theories of varying plausibility about the phrase, but the most likely explanation tackles the “wish someone ill as a way to wish them well” puzzle of “break a leg” head on. Popular folklore down through the ages is full of warnings against wishing someone good luck. Doing so, say the sages, will tempt evil spirits or demons to do your friend harm. So the trick is to outwit the demons (who are apparently not very bright) by wishing your friend bad fortune.

As for the specific form of “break a leg,” we seem to have imported it from Europe. In the German theater, actors use the equivalent phrase “Hals- und Bienbruch,” to wish their colleagues “a broken neck and a broken leg.” The German phrase seems to have begun life among aviators, possibly during World War I, and gradually spread to the German theater and from there to the British and American stages.

13 comments to Break a leg

  • Holg

    For the sake of accuracy, the correct spelling of the German phrase is “Hals- und Beinbruch”. (I’m German.)

  • Geoff

    Your explanation seems reasonable. Similarly the french say ‘merde’ to wish people good luck before they begin a quest. ‘Merde’ – as I’m sure you’re aware means ‘shit’.
    I don’t expect that our thespian friends would want to land on shit on stage either !

  • Damm

    As far as I know the origin of the phrase,which actually reads “Hals- und Bein” only, not “bruch”, was used when mounting a horse.
    MD

  • Holg

    I’ve never heard “Hals und Bein” without “bruch”, but a quick search on Google does seem to deliver several hits especially on riding-related sites. Must be a shortening of the longer phrase, because it makes little sense otherwise. Note that the shortened form has no hyphen after “Hals”.

    BTW, the Wiktionary says that “Hals- und Beinbruch” is a corruption of the yiddish phrase “hazlokhe un brokhe”, meaning “success and blessings” or something like that. I’m not sure if that’s authoritative, but if it is, then the idea of outwitting the demons would have been applied after the fact.

  • Slim

    Actually, if you take the tour of Ford’s Theater, you learn that John Wilkes Booth did not break his leg when he jumped to the stage. He fell off a horse or was stepped on by one later in the evening.

  • Warren

    Further to “break a leg”, it’s significant that the stage community consider “Good luck!” to be the kiss of death for a performance! But they’re a very superstitious lot … just look at the way they refer to “The Scottish play”.

  • Cathy

    Hello Evan and all the cats.

    Sorry to hear you were sick. Glad to hear you are doing better. A ‘silver lining’ sort of observation, I think your dreams could rival Stephan King’s. I can’ wait for the movies.

    Now, down to business. I am writing about the “break your leg” origin. My husband does a lot of acting and I being the dutiful wife usually work back stage on props or costumes or diva control. Whatever. And the origin of ‘break your leg” has caused us lowly little prop minions many a discussion between requests such as “I want you to make my bosom glisten under the left spot light” and “be a dear and sew this sleeve back onto my jacket before I have to go on stage in 25 seconds” .

    Your comment about it being funny that we should wish a broken leg just for actors and not hope your heads fall off to the bride and groom was the same thought I had when I first started to become interested in words. Why a broken leg, not an arm or why just actors. Hmmm.

    This is what I discovered.

    In Shakespear’s time there were many traditions concerning the stage and the actors. Briefly after the show for the fisrt bow an actor just slightly lower his head (his head, since no woman except Gwnyth Palrow could go an stage) to the crowd. If the audience liked him then he would take a second bow from the waist. And if the audience loved him, he would get an encore, an ovation, resulting in a third bow by bending his knees.

    Now this is where Thee Olde Medieval Urban Legend comes into play (pun intended). ‘Brak thy limb’ is Olde English for ‘Bend thy limb or leg’ So when an actor who worked for Willie Shakes was told to Brak thy Limb, he was in fact being wished “good luck, great show and hope that the audience loves ya baby, and you get a third ovation!”

    I suppose that the Americanize version of brak became break and now we say break a leg without truly meaning it!

    Keep up the great work!

    Cathy

  • In theater, simply saying good luck and have an outstanding performance is given in 3 words alone and that is “break a leg”. Actually, i find it very sweet phrase.

  • In traditional curtains, the legs of the curtain were constructed from long wooden rods. In the case of many encores, curtains would be lifted and dropped numerous times causing them to “break.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Break_a_leg

  • Allen

    I can assure you, as a stage actor, that what truly matters about the term is that we are a severely superstitious bunch. Set construction is as much about nailing together planks of wood and scrim as it is about not walking through ladders or breaking glass. Saying “Good luck” is akin to saying the name “Macbeth” backstage- it simply isn’t done. Anything going too right is bound to end up in disaster at a theater. Saying “Break a Leg” simply means that spiteful fortune (the far more likely variety) is forced to act in our favor.

  • One very believable explanation is that the side black curtains which hide the actors before they enter in a pros arch stage are known as “Legs”.
    So, in order to arrive on stage the actor has to “break the leg”

  • Chastity

    I’m not sure if it’s true, but the story I read long ago was this:

    Long ago, a King (Solomon, I think.)had a specific jester that was his favourite. The jester’s bit that the king liked most was when he made fun of Catholics. Once, the jester was making fun of being baptized, and coughed and sputtered in the “Holy water”. After the jester finished, the king laughed and requested a second performance. The jester refused. He said he had actually been converted to Catholicism when he thought he had only been pretending. The King demanded again for the jester to mock Catholics. The jester refused again. Angry at being disobeyed, the king ordered that the jester’s legs be broken.

    If this story is true, the meaning of break a leg is not “good luck”, but rather, “only perform that which is true to yourself.”

  • Scully

    I understood that this comes from a performance where the actors gave so many curtain calls that one of them got dizzy and fell into the audience, breaking a leg in the fall. So the term “break a leg” means “may you have so many curtain calls that you fall and break a leg. I wish I could remember where and when it happened.

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