Why Do We Say Something ‘Costs an Arm and a Leg?’


For more than a century now, people have used the phrase, “costing an arm and a leg” to denote something that’s expensive.

If you’re looking for a good example of an idiom, the phrase about something costing an arm and a leg stands as a great example.

An idiom is a phrase that carries a meaning that may not always be discernible at its face value.

When we say, for instance, that something costs an arm and a leg, we don’t mean someone will come along and take away two of your limbs. (Or anyone else’s for that matter.)

Here’s where it didn’t come from.

So how did such a curious (and gory) phrase make its way into common usage? To find the answer, many sources say we have to return to the aftermath of the Civil War.

The magazine Mental_Floss relates an interesting urban myth about the idiom’s meaning. The myth claims that in the old days, portrait artists charged extra per limb. That’s why, the myth alleges, many historical portraits showed subjects standing behind desks or with one arm behind them in a regal pose.

So when pricing was discussed, the painter might say he could complete the piece for the desired budget, at the cost of an arm and a leg.

I think that’s one of the most clever false explanations for an idiom that I’ve come across.

But false is false.

The idiom came into use after the Civil War.

In 1874, Congress, which had already been compensating Veterans who lost limbs during the American Civil War, passed a new law. The law provided a $24 pension to Vets who lost an arm or a leg. Certain conditions applied with respect to the length of the limb lost.

You may not think $24 sounds like much. In 2021 dollars, that adds up to $522. That still doesn’t sound like much for such a loss. Would you sacrifice a limb for $6,264 a year? I wouldn’t.

Mental_Floss tells us the phrase began appearing in newspapers just after the turn of the century.

But it wasn’t until 1949 that they found it used figuratively as the idiom we all know and love.

The explanation about the pension makes much more sense than the myth about portrait charges, doesn’t it?

Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.