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Why Do People Tell Actors to "Break a Leg"?

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website.

The term “break a leg” is unique to actors. Actors often tell each other to “break a leg” and the term is also commonly used by non-actors, who wish the sentiment on actual actors. It means, of course, “Do well!” or “Have a great show!” The term can be used before a stage performance, a show, or an audition. I have never heard it used before filming a movie, but I guess it can be used on that occasion, too.

Interestingly, stagehands do not use the term, just actors. Stagehands will often tell each other “Don’t mess up” or the more graphic “Don’t f*** up” before a big or important performance.

Like many popular sayings and terms, the origin of “break a leg” is nebulous and disputed. The term “break a leg” was used originally, some say, to discourage evil spirits from deliberately causing one’s performance to suffer. According to this theory, wishing someone “good luck” would be invoking the “evil eye.” So “good luck” would actually cause bad luck for the actor. This, “break a leg,” by this logic, would be a wish for good luck.

vThe term “break a leg” may be traced back to the Elizabethan language. To “break a leg” in Shakespeare’s time meant, literally, to bow -by bending at the knee. Since a successful actor would “break a leg” onstage and receive applause, the phrase would, in effect, be a wish for good luck. However, in the 16th century “break a leg” also meant to give birth to an illegitimate child, which is hard to connect to the theatrical world.

Other trace “break a leg” to the tradition of audiences in ancient Greece. Instead of applauding actors, audiences would stomp their feet. Stomping to the point of actually breaking a leg was unlikely -but the phrase may be more figurative than literal.

vAn interesting historical theory attributes “break a leg” to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This theory traces the term to the great 19th century actor John Wilkes Booth, who, of course, shot President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in 1865. After Booth shot the president, he jumped from Lincoln’s upper box seat onto the stage, where he literally broke his leg. Interestingly, this is also possibly the origin of the popular phrase comedians and comics use for a successful show: “I killed them!”

Another possibility has the popular stage play 42nd Street as the source of “break a leg.” In the play, understudy Peggy Sawyer gets her shot at stardom when the star of the play breaks her leg. Peggy gets to take over the lead role and is a huge success.

Landing a role in show business is called “getting a break” and being newly successful is called “breaking into the business.” These may also be where the “break a leg” term evolved from.

Another possible construction is the German phrase Hals- und Beinbruch. This is loosely translated to “happy landings” in English. Both English and German pilots use the term. The literal translation is “breaking all one’s bones.” It is possible actors adopted this phrase, as it was in common use in the 1920s, after World War I.

vBallet dancers have their own version of “break a leg” which connects to the superstitious concept of not wishing other dancers “good luck.” They will say “Merde!” This translates from French to English as a well-known four letter word which describes human waste. This term seems more expressive of not evoking ill will or bad luck, but as well may imply feelings related to stage fright or anxiety before a performance.

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December 6th, 2012

Stranger to the World


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