In the theater world, people typically say ‘Break a leg’ to wish actors and musicians good luck before they go on stage to perform.
Other superstitions claim that it is bad luck to whistle in a theatre, or to say the final line of a play during dress rehearsal. 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.
The earliest known example in print is from Edna Ferber’s 1939 A Peculiar Treasure: “…and all the understudies sitting in the back row politely wishing the various principals would break a leg.”
There are several theories behind the origin of the phrase but it remains obscure. The following are some of the more popular explanations.
To ‘break the leg’ or ‘break a leg’ is archaic slang for bowing or curtsying; placing one foot behind the other and bending at the knee ‘breaks’ the line of the leg.
Another popular theory concerning the physical ‘legs,’ or side curtains, of the theatre proposes that the actors rush onstage through the curtains to take their bows, thus ‘breaking a leg (side curtain)’ in the process.
In Ancient Greece, people didn’t clap. Instead, they stomped their appreciation and if they stomped long enough, they would break a leg. Or, some say that the term originated during Elizabethan times when, instead of applause the audience would bang their chairs on the ground—and if they liked it enough, the leg of the chair would break. Stomping until you break a leg seems entirely too far-fetched. But the chair is another matter.
One false etymology derives the phrase from the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The story goes that John Wilkes Booth, the actor turned assassin, claimed in his diary that he broke his leg leaping to the stage of Ford’s Theatre after murdering the President. However, the fact that actors did not start saying ‘break a leg’ until the 1920s (more than 50 years later) makes this an unlikely source.
‘Break a leg’ also means ‘make a strenuous effort.’ There are many references to the phrase used that way, which pre-date the earliest theatrical good luck charm meaning. So it is possible that when an actor is told to ‘break a leg,’ he/she may just be being exhorted to put on an energetic, exciting performance.
Another archaic use of the term ‘leg’ is the name for a rod which formed a vital part of the apparatus for raising and lowering the curtain. So to ‘break a leg’ was wishing the actor to have so many curtain calls that the ‘leg’ would break from the strain of repeatedly raising and lowering the curtain.
Landing a role in show business is called ‘getting a break’ and being newly successful is called ‘breaking into the business.’ These phrases could also be where the ‘break a leg’ term comes from.
Professional dancers do not wish each other good luck by saying ‘break a leg’; instead they say ‘Merde!’, the French word for ‘shit.’ This term may have arisen in response to the audience’s shoes inadvertently dragging horse and dog droppings from city streets into theater lobbies during the days of horse-drawn transportation.
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.
Maybe, when I’m starting to write a new book and you want to wish me luck, you could say ‘break an arm!’