When an actor takes to the stage, you’re supposed to say “Break a leg!” It’s commonly held that this wish of bad luck is actually good luck, and that wishing someone well in the theatre is actually jinxing the event. While the performing arts are known for their superstitious nature, this may not be the whole truth. After all, it could be a linguistic misinterpretation, come from a different language, have to do with a one-legged actress, or even been a tribute to the memorable evening when President Lincoln was shot in a theatre.
One interpretation of the word break means “to deviate from a straight line”, which has a similar meaning to the word bend. In this way, “break a leg” could simply mean to bend your leg at the knee thereby breaking the straight line your leg was making. In essence, wishing this upon a performer was saying “I hope your performance is so great that you’ll have to bow at the end, thus bending your leg in acceptance of praise.”
Another theatre interpretation comes from the leg or wing curtains, those curtains off to the side when the main ones are drawn back. Coming from Vaudeville, an act wouldn’t make any money unless they made in on stage, hence breaking the audience’s line-of-sight with the leg curtain. A different interpretation involves understudies wishing ill on the main cast, such as breaking a leg, so they could get on stage and earn some money.
Of course the phrase might not be English to begin with. In Greece it was customary to stomp instead of applaud, so only the best performances would lead to someone breaking their leg in appreciation. In Elizabethan times, audience members were instead stomp their chairs and break those legs instead. In Ancient Rome, gladiators may have heard “break a leg” indicating that they shouldn’t kill their opponent but only maim them which was still a victory. Or the phrase could be of German origin, as fighter pilots in World War I were said to wish each other “Hals- und Beinbruch” or “neck and leg fractures” before each flight, perhaps in tune with “Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.” Yet that might be complete hogwash as the German phrase sounds similar to the Yiddish “Hatsloche un Broche” meaning “success and blessing”, perhaps accounting for the strange association between physical injury and good luck.
Maybe the phrase has a real association with previous incidents. One story revolves around Sarah Bernhardt, a famous French actress who had her leg amputated in 1915. She continued performing afterwards, so this saying could be in memory of her. Or it could be in memory of David Richard Garrick who became famous during the 18th century for his performances of Shakespeare’s Richard III. On one such performance he supposedly suffered a fracture yet was so caught up in acting that he didn’t notice it until later.
Yet another story brings this phrase to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Apparently, when John Wilkes Booth shot the President, he then jumped onto the stage and broke his leg. This makes the phrase not one to incite killings, but wishing that the night be one worthy of remembrance.
All of these other stories smack of implausibility though. What do we know for certain? There is anecdotal evidence from memoirs and letters that the phrase was used in a theatre setting from as early as the 1920s, making the assassination story (occurring in 1865), gladiator tale, and Elizabethan origin all questionable. Tying it to theatre more directly doesn’t come until 1948 in The Theatre Handbook and Digest of Plays where author Bernard Sobel notes the phrase in its present day use. In 1921, an article on horse racing was published explaining that wishing someone luck was unlucky, so “You should say something insulting such as, ‘May you break your leg!'”
With all of these different theories we may never find the true origin. However, there is one final theory: the phrase means to put such energy into a performance that you might break your leg during it. So in honour of this, may you break your leg trying to find the origin of the phrase.
Today’s Tangent: Think “break a leg” is a little gruesome before going on stage? That’s nothing compared to professional dancers. They’ll often say “merde” (French for “shit”) before a performance, which has now lead to actors also shouting this before plays.