Why Do People Tell Actors to “Break a Leg”?

John asks: Why do people tell actors to “break a leg” before a performance?

Now You KnowThe term, of course, means “do well” or “have a great show” and is typically used before a stage performance, a show, or an audition. (I have never heard it used before filming a movie on any of the movies I’ve been involved with, but I guess it can be used in that sense too).  But I’m sure you’re more interested in the origin of “break a leg”.

Like many popular sayings and terms, the origin of “break a leg” is nebulous and disputed.  The term “break a leg” was used originally, many 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. Thus, “break a leg”, by this logic, would be a wish for good luck.

This is in line with the first documented instance of someone saying “break a leg” in terms of wishing them luck. In an October 1, 1921 edition of the New Statesman, Robert Wilson Lynd is talking about it being unlucky in horse racing to wish someone luck so “you should say something insulting such as, ‘May you break your leg!”  He also mentions that theater people are the second most superstitious group next to those involved in horse racing.

Another of the early documented references of “break a leg”, this time directly referring to theater, was in the 1939 A Peculiar Treasure by Edna Ferber, where she implies a different motive, “…and all the understudies sitting in the back row politely wishing the various principals would break a leg”.  Thus, they say it hoping the principal actors will break their leg so the understudies can possibly take the lead.

Another possible construction is the German phrase “Hals und beinbruch”. The sentiment here is “Happy landings” in English. Both English and German pilots use the term, but the literal translation is “breaking all one’s bones”. It is possible actors adopted this phrase, as it was just after WWI that the “break a leg” sentiment seems to have gained widespread popularity.

The 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.

Others 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 is unlikely- but still, the phrase may be figurative and not literal.

An 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”. (Some also present this as a possibly origin of the popular phrase comedians and comics use for a successful show: “I killed them.” / “I killed the audience.”)

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

So as you can see here, the exact origin of “break a leg” for wishing someone luck is murky at best.  But whatever first spawned the exact phrase, it seems plausible enough that it either grew in popularity from the idea of wishing bad luck on someone so that they’ll in turn be given good luck, as the early documented references of the phrase imply, or in sarcastically wishing them bad luck so that the understudy could perhaps take over the role of one of the principals if the principal actually broke their leg.

Bonus Fact:

  • Ballet 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 in English to a well-known four-letter word that describes human waste. This term seems more expressive of not evoking ill or bad luck, but as well may imply feelings related to stage fright or anxiety before a performance.
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17 comments

  • In French they also say Merde. What I heard was, back in the day, horse drawn carriages showing up at the theatre meant a lot of “merde” outside, meaning the theatre was full of audience.

    • You are so right in Spanish it is also “mucha mierda” and the origin was that in the old times the more carriages took people to the theater the more “mierda” would pile up at the front of the theatre

  • apologyacceptedcptneeda

    The correct way of spelling the German phrase is: “Hals- und Beinbruch” (Which means “breaking a (your) neck and leg”.

    >Hans< is the German name for the English name Jack.

  • In burlesque, we say “pop a pastie!”

  • My brother is a professional dancer, and he and his colleagues use ‘chookas/chookers’. That might be an Australian thing though.

  • In theater, the best performances illicit multiple curtain calls. Standing ovations.

    The sides of these curtains are called “Legs”

    To wish some one to break a leg is to wish them a best performance. Multiple Audience ovations.

  • I like the John Wilkes booth “Break A Leg”. It’s just too bad he didn’t break his neck. Which wouldn’t sound very good for wishing someone Good Luck.

  • I once heard that “break s leg” came from a handle used in the theatre in the past to open the curtain.
    If the show was successful the curtains would be open & closed so many times that the handle (leg) would break.

  • Breaking a leg could also be derived from the early Vaudeville days. Standby acts would wait in the wings for the opportunity to perform if someone got sick or didn’t show. Legs refer to the curtains that hang on the sides of the stage and “breaking a leg” meant to make an entrance from the side. These standby acts were only paid if they broke a leg and performed.

  • I worked for 13 years in theatre with IATSE and our history tells that the saying of “break a leg” comes from the fact that, as a performer you didn’t get paid in the early days, if you didn’t make it onto the stage to perform.

    The curtains on the edges of the stage are called “legs” and the only performers that got paid were those that “broke” past those legs to be onstage.

    The handle you spoke of in the article associated with the curtain isn’t called a leg, it’s a “brake” meant to hold the line in place.

    • I too have years in the entertainment business — 45 years now in fact — and I have always heard from the oldtimers that “Break a leg” is in fact a wish of ‘good luck’, but is the act of a bow (or curtsey) and when you bend your back leg at the knee — hence breaking it — that is the reason it is said. It is a ‘wish of a great performance’ that you need to take one (or more) bows due to the applause.

  • Shakesphere days; Actors bowed to audience at end of play. When they got what in 2016 would be called a “standing ovations’ , the actors did more than bow, they broke/bent on leg behind the other – a curtsey- and this was only done by someone who had a successful night of performance.

  • In French we say “merde” to wish stage performers luck. If it translates to “shit” it is actually closer to “dung”.
    In the days of stage coaches and buggys, horses didn’t always wait to “go” and “went” when ever they pleased. This was also a reference for statistics in bigger cities that owned many play houses. The more people came to see your show, the more likely your were to find a pile of dung at the foot of the steps to the theatre. The larger the dung heap the more popular the show. Hence the expression to wish a stage performer longevity in showings by saying “merde” or I wish you the largest dung heap. #Fredswalks

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