Break a leg

What does “Break a leg” mean? Here’s a quick and simple definition:

“Break a leg” is an incredibly popular idiom used in common speech by all English speakers. It is used as a replacement for “good luck” as the phrase, especially in the theatre, is often considered bad luck.

“Break a leg” is a very good example of how complicated and confusing idioms can be to non-English speakers. They are impossible to understand unless someone has the appropriate context and experience with the phrase. It doesn’t make sense on its own.

"Break a leg" - Meaning and Origin

 

Meaning of “Break a leg”

“Break a leg” is commonly used in the world of theatre as a way of wishing a performer or group of performers good luck. The saying, like several other idioms, depends on irony and context. It’s a non-literal saying, one that likely relates back to superstitions. By telling a performer to “break a leg,” the speaker is actually telling them to do as well as they can on stage. Broken legs don’t come into the meaning at all.

 

When to Use “Break a leg”

The phrase “break a leg” is used by anyone seeking to wish another good luck. Someone might use it before an actor goes out on stage for her performance before an athlete competes in their sport, a student takes a test, or any number of other high stakes, and sometimes low stakes, events. Often, the phrase is used doubly ironically in that the task being performed is not that big of a deal. For example, telling someone to break a leg before they go into the store to purchase something. It’s easy enough to see how, in some circumstances, this might be amusing. Replacing “break a leg” with good luck provides interested speakers with a variety of ways to use the phrase.

 

Example Sentences with “Break a leg”

“Hey, Tom! Good luck out there! Break a leg!”

Don’t forget to tell her to break a leg before she goes on stage.

I role my eyes every time someone tells me to break a leg.

“One day I might actually break my leg on stage,” she thought.

I hope you have a great evening! Break a leg!

 

Origins of “Break a leg”

There are several different possibilities in regards to where the phrase “break a leg” came from. But, like most idioms, there is no clear author. The phrase might possibly have originated with horse racing. It is used in the 1921 article “A Defence of Superstition,” in which the author describes how wishing someone “good luck” was actually considered bad luck. He wrote the following lines in regards to what someone “should” say to someone who’s about to race: “You should say something insulting such as, ‘May you break your leg!’”

Some scholars look to a German phrase as the origin of “break a leg.” The phrase “Hals- und Beinbruch,” means “neck and leg break,” was take from the Hebrew meaning “success and blessing,” both have a similar pronunciation. Additionally, it’s generally thought that the term became popular in American with the entrance of Jewish immigrants into the country and entertainment industry in the early-mid 1900s.

In addition to these more popular theories, there are some that are less likely although entertaining in themselves. Some suggest that the term comes from the motion of bowing or curtsying on stage or perhaps from the imagined line along the stage known as the “leg line” where actors would enter onto the stage. This dates back to the days of vaudeville when performers would remain on standby alongside the stage. Breaking a leg might’ve referred to the opportunity to actually go on stage and get paid.

Other possibilities bring the Shakespearean actor David Garrick into the picture and his performance of Richard III in which he broke his leg but was so engrossed in the performance that he didn’t notice. Alternatively, some have suggested that the term comes from the sound of audience members banging chairs or their own legs on the floor.   

 

Why Do Writers Use “Break a leg?”

In literature, the phrase “break a leg” is often used just as it would be in natural speech. Plus, as with natural speech, the piece of dialogue can be applied anywhere to almost any situation. Some of these might be humorous, others natural sounding, and others more serious. The idiom, like all idioms, is used colloquially, but unlike some, this phrase might be used by a total stranger. It is so common and ubiquitous that it can be used in almost any conversation.

 

“Break a leg” Synonyms

Good luck, godspeed, better luck next time, good fortune, and best wishes.

 

Related Idioms

  • “Break the ice.”
  • “Cut somebody some slack.”
  • “A blessing in disguise.”
  • “Get your act together.”
  • “Hang in there.”
  • “On the ball.”
  • “So far so good.”
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