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.

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