What does “Break a Leg” mean?
The phrase “break a leg” is a traditional theatre idiom that wishes good luck before a performance. No one really knows where the phrase came from but there are many theories.
Here are some of the most commonly known:
- Superstition Against Wishing Good Luck: This theory states that it would often be considered bad luck to wish actors good luck directly. So if saying good luck would cause the actor to have a bad performance, the thought is that by saying “break a leg”, the superstition would be tricked and the opposite would happen, meaning the actor would have a good performance.
- Reference to Bowing: In this context, “breaking a leg” may refer to the bending or “breaking” of the leg as an actor bows or curtsies at the end of a successful performance.
- German Origin – “Hals- und Beinbruch”: The most believed theory is that the phrase comes from the German expression “Hals- und Beinbruch,” which translates to “neck and leg break.” This phrase was used by German pilots during World War I to wish each other good luck. This phrase may have been adapted by English-speaking actors.
- Greek Tradition – Throwing Money: In ancient Greece, instead of clapping, the audience would stomp their feet. If they liked it enough, the stomping could potentially ‘break a leg.’ Therefore, this theory is not that the actor would break their own leg, but to put on such a good performance that the audience could break their own legs from stomping so hard.
- Breaking the Leg Line: In theatre, the side curtains of the stage can be referred to as “legs.” So to “break a leg” would mean to enter the stage, getting the chance to perform. For standby actors, who only got paid if they got to perform, “breaking a leg” would mean they would also get paid.