Q From G A Michael: What is the origin and meaning of the expression break a leg, said to persons who are preparing to appear in a theatrical production?
A Of all theatrical superstitions, this attempt to ward off the forces of darkness by wishing one’s fellow performers the opposite of good luck is the one that’s perhaps best known outside the profession. It belongs with other superstitions, such as that it’s bad luck to whistle in a theatre, that you should never utter the final line of a play at the dress rehearsal, or that you must never say the name of the Scottish Play in the green room. Actors have always been a superstitious bunch, as you might expect from a profession in which employment is sporadic, audiences fickle and reputations fragile.
The saying is widely used among actors and musicians in the theatre today, sometimes before every performance, but more often reserved for first night. Where it comes from has for decades been a source of dispute and I’ve collected the following speculations:
• In earlier times, actors wished one another “may you break your leg”, in the hope that the performance would be so successful that the performer would be called forth to take a bow — to bend his knee.
• At one time audiences showed their appreciation by throwing money on the stage; to pick the coins up, actors had to break their legs, that is, kneel or bend down.
• The curtains on either side of a stage were called the legs, so that to pass through the legs was to make it out on to the stage ready to give a good performance, or perhaps expressing the hope that you will need to pass through them at the end of the show to take a curtain call, implying your performance had been good.
• The saying really refers to getting one’s big break, that the performance will be good enough to ensure success in one’s career.
• In the days of music hall, some acts were kept on standby to cover gaps in the bill. If they didn’t appear on stage — break the visual line of the wing maskings called legs — they didn’t get paid.
• The famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt had a leg amputated in 1915, which didn’t stop her performing; it is considered good luck to mention her in the hope that some of her theatrical prowess will rub off by association.
• John Wilkes Booth, the actor who assassinated President Lincoln, broke his leg when he jumped on to the stage to escape afterward. Somehow, reminding fellow actors of this event is supposed to lead to good luck in the performance.
We may discard all these on the grounds of varying degrees of implausibility.
One other suggestion is that it derives from horse racing. For a horse or jockey to break a leg is a calamity and it might have been that to wish it so was likewise an inverted call for good luck. Wikipedia points out that this was suggested in an article in the British journal the New Statesman in October 1921, in which the Irish writer Robert Wilson Lynd noted that jockeys and actors are equally superstitious and that to wish good luck “You should say something insulting such as, ‘May you break your leg!’ ”. It seems to be supported by this example in a novel:
Rupert said, smiling a little: “Isn't that a Teutonic expression employed before the chase?” She laughed, lazily, over the lifted glass. “Not exactly. I believe that would be bad luck or something. You say, ‘I hope you break a leg’ — or your neck — or some such hope of calamity.”
Thresholds, by Faith Baldwin, 1925.
However, there is no other contemporary evidence and we have to conclude that Baldwin was borrowing a saying from the theatre because of its seeming relevance to horse racing. And Richard Webster says in the Encyclopedia of Superstitions of 2008 that one must never say break a leg to a jockey because it’s considered very bad luck. It’s just too serious a potential happening to mention, even in jest.
Break a leg only became known outside the acting profession in the 1950s but anecdotal evidence from theatrical memoirs and personal recollection suggest that it had been used among actors from the 1930s or perhaps a decade earlier (Baldwin’s comment certainly implies that it was known by 1925). Whatever the dating, it is definitely American in origin. This is the first explicit example so far unearthed:
And when that grisly night of the dress rehearsal finally comes round, and the strange figures enter the dim auditorium and grope for seats and mumble and creep about ... and all the understudies sitting in the back row politely wish the various principals would break a leg — it is then that everything goes suddenly completely and inextricably wrong and you realize that tomorrow night is just twenty-four hours away.
A Peculiar Treasure, by Edna Ferber, 1939.
Similar expressions are known from other languages: the French say Merde! (a term that has been borrowed by dancers in the English and American theatre) and Germans say Hals- und Beinbruch, “neck and leg break”, as ways of wishing someone good luck without any fear of supernatural retaliation. It is sometimes said that the German expression is actually a corruption of a Hebrew blessing hatzlakha u-brakha, “success and blessing”, which may have been borrowed via Yiddish.
Whatever its source, the most plausible theory is that Hals- und Beinbruch was transferred into the American professional theatre (in which Yiddish- or German-speaking immigrant Jews were strongly represented) sometime after World War I.