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Cost an arm and a leg

“Cost an arm and a leg” refers to a high cost, something astronomically expensive that is compared through this phrase, to give up an arm or a leg.

“Cost an arm and a leg” is a popular idiom that is thought to have its origins sometime around World War II. The phrase, which is applicable to a wide variety of situations, suggests that something is quite expensive. So much so that it’s like losing an arm and a leg to pay for it. 

Cost an arm and a leg meaning


Meaning of “Cost an arm and a leg”

“Cost an arm and a leg” refers to a high cost, something astronomically expensive that is compared through this phrase, to give up an arm or a leg. It takes a lot to achieve or gain whatever this thing is, and the experience feels somewhat sacrificial. The amount of money or time one has to give to this pursuit is a true loss. What isn’t depicted in this phrase is if that sacrifice is worth it. 


When to Use “Cost an arm and a leg”

“Cost an arm and a leg” can be used, like many idioms, in normal everyday conversation with friends, family members, and colleagues. This phrase is well-recognized, used, and understood by many English speakers. Meaning, most people who hear it or read it are going to understand exactly what that person means. Everyone can relate to the theoretical loss of an arm or a leg, so when used correctly, it’s a good way to express one’s opinion on what something costs or takes to achieve. It should be noted that this phrase, like others, is less likely to appear in a formal setting, such as a high stakes business meeting or an academic paper. It’s too informal to feel appropriate there. 


Example Sentences with “Cost an arm and a leg”

  • Ugh! This costs an arm and a leg! I don’t have that kind of money. 
  • Did you hear what Jeremy bought the other day? Cost him an arm and a leg.
  • I don’t know how you afforded that, it must’ve cost you an arm and a leg.
  • You know how these businesses are, they want you to pay an arm and a leg every time you shop there.


Why Do Writers Use “Cost an arm and a leg?” 

Writers use “cost an arm and a leg” in the same way that everyday English speakers do. As mentioned above, the phrase is easily understood by a large number of people and can therefore be used in conversations between characters in a novel or short story. It might also be found in contemporary dramatic work. Using idioms, proverbs, and other related phrases in writing is a good way of connecting to the audience with words they themselves have likely used recently, or at least heard someone else use. 


Origins of “Cost an arm and a leg”

“Cost an arm and a leg” originated in America, sometime around the Second World War. One of the earliest citations is from 1949 in The Long Beach Independent. The quote, which is used in reference to coking an affordable Christmas meal, reads: 

Food Editor Beulah Karney has more than 10 ideas for the homemaker who wants to say “Merry Christmas” and not have it cost her an arm and a leg.

Here, the speaker is describing one person seeking out recipes that aren’t going to cost “an arm and a leg,” or a lot of money. Some related phrases that use body parts as a means of sacrifice for something one longs for, might be connected to the coinage of this phrase. For example, this quote from Sharpe’s London Journal. It reads: 

He felt as if he could gladly give his right arm to be cut off if it would make him, at once, old enough to go and earn money instead of Lizzy.

These lines were published in 1849, but examples of this kind of hyperbole are found in earlier publications as well. Another example, from several decades later, reads: 

A man who owes five years subscription to the Gazette is trying to stop his paper without paying up, and the editor is going to grab that back pay if it takes a leg.

While these two quotes don’t use “an arm and a leg,” it’s easy to see how they’re related and how the phrase might’ve evolved naturally from them. Lovers of language will also be able to find versions of this phrase in other languages as well, such as French and German. 

Interestingly, “an arm and a leg” has another compelling, but baseless, explanation. Some believe the phrase originated in painting commissions in which artists are described as charging more for portraits that included body parts. But, there is no evidence for this theory. 


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