The phrase has fallen out of common use today but it is still generally well-known by the broader English-speaking public. This idiom is a great example of one that requires context to understand. It can’t be understood simply through knowing the words that it uses.
Explore 'Pulling someone's leg'
Meaning of “Pulling someone’s leg”
“Pulling someone’s leg” is used when referring to one’s humorous deceit of another. The phrase is most commonly used when speaking about a joke one person played on another. It describes telling someone something that’s not true, exaggerating the truth of a situation, making up a story, or doing some other thing in the hope of entertaining or amusing. It is not usually used in a negative sense, only in a way of addressing the fabrication.
When To Use “Pulling someone’s leg”
It’s possible to use “pulling someone’s leg” in a variety of situations. For example, one friend might tell another an outrageous and obviously untrue, yet funny, story. The listener might say, “no way, you’re pulling my leg” as a response. This is a way of saying “no way, I don’t believe you’re telling me the truth” or, “no way, you’re trying to trick me into believing something that isn’t true.” It’s also possible to use the phrase to refer to a situation that one was not directly a part of. For example, someone could say, “I heard that he was only pulling her leg when he said that.”
- You have to be pulling my leg. No way that’s true!
- My brother was always pulling my leg when we were younger.
- She just can’t stop joking. People are getting annoyed with her trying to pull their legs all the time.
- I was just pulling your leg when I said I’d lost all my money at the casino.
- You have to be careful about pulling people’s legs, someone might get upset.
Why Do Writers Use “Pulling someone’s leg?”
Writers use “pulingl someone’s leg” in the same way and for the same reasons that it’s used today in normal speech. This phrase, unlike some idioms, is not as commonly used. It is more dated than other idioms like “benefit of the doubt” or “break the ice.” These, and others like them, are used by a wide variety of people. But, “pulling someone’s leg” is likely only going to be used in very specific contexts and more likely by an elderly person. Therefore, by using the phrase, a writer can add detail to a character’s history without explicitly stating that they are from a certain place or time. This is the case with some other idioms as well. It’s quite easy to use these phrases in one’s writing but that doesn’t always mean that it’s right to do so. Sometimes they can take away more than they add.
Origins of “Pulling someone’s leg”
“Pulling someone’s leg” is an example of an idiom that doesn’t have a clear origin. Most people believe that it originated sometime in the 18th century. There are two theories that are usually cited in regard to how the phrase came into common use. One describes thieves pulling unsuspecting victim’s legs in order to trap them. Something that’s supposed to have occurred in the Victorian period. Unfortunately, this interesting origin story does not have any evidence to support it.
The second theory comes from the same period but has an even darker context. It might refer to the act of pulling on someone’s leg in order to finish off those who were sentenced to hang. Sometimes, those who were hanged did to die immediately, or even soon after, they were dropped. Therefore someone had to go around and pull on the legs of those people, ending their lives. Yet again, there is no clear record of the phrase originating from this practice.
More likely is the possibility that the phrase is American. There is a citation from The Newark Daily Advocate, dating to February 1883 that sues the following line:
It is now the correct thing to say that a man who has been telling you preposterous lies has been “pulling your leg.”
The phrase I defined in this passage, suggesting that it was not as well known then as it is today. Perhaps, this was one of the earliest or the earliest, examples of the idiom in print.