Ever wondered about the tradition of performers on stage or other big projects who tell a colleague to ‘break a leg?’ Here’s the story.
When we talk about the old saying, “Break a leg,” used to mean a wish of good luck, we’re talking about an idiom.
We’ve discussed idioms before. They’re phrases that have a unique meaning that is usually different than what one not familiar with the phrase might assume. If you aren’t familiar with the phrase, you would naturally assume a very hostile intent.
In this case, it means exactly the opposite.
So how did ‘Break a leg’ come to mean ‘Good luck?’
Theatre people, like some professional athletes, can be very superstitious about rituals connected with their work.
Even people outside of those two fields can be. My best friend is a television director and wants a small piece of masking tape wrapped around his pinkie finger before he directs a live program. Early on, for some reason, he did that and ended up having a flawless show. So he kept that tradition alive for all these many years. (It doesn’t mean he always has a flawless show, of course. But it sets him more at ease going in.)
You never wish an actor or musician “good luck” before a performance. Doing so is considered bad luck. I’m sure there’s zero data to determine whether a “good luck” wish actually does cause bad luck. But with superstition, few ever let facts get in the way of their fears.
The site Ludwig-Van.org links theatre superstition with horse racing superstition. The site explains that the first instance of “Break a leg” used to mean “Good luck” was published in 1921. It referred to the custom of saying, “I hope your horse breaks a leg” to mean the opposite, that the horse would win the race. By 1939, the phrase turned up in a reference to actors backstage.
The Transcendence Theatre Company, meanwhile, has four possible explanations for the idiom’s use on the stage. One of the most intriguing involves ancient Greece. The site says those audiences didn’t clap but instead stomped their feet to show appreciation. If the audience stomped long enough, they would break a leg. It sounds a bit implausible, but I suppose stranger things have happened.
So the origin remains a bit unclear.
Still, if someone tells you to “break a leg” and their tone doesn’t sound like they’re saying, “Drop dead,” you should probably assume they’re sending well wishes.
But if you’re the superstitious type, you may not want to overthink it. You might jinx yourself into bad luck after all!