Don't Be An Idiom: Break A Leg
Exploring the origin of everyday words and sayings.
Web2Carz Senior Writer
Published: October 14th, 2012
Some people believe it's a reference to John Wilkes Booth, who broke a leg jumping onto the stage at Ford's Theatre after putting a bullet in Abraham Lincoln's brain.
f you've ever known any theatre people, or if you've ever been in a play, you already know that you never say "good luck" to an actor—it's bad luck. Theatre people have many ridiculous superstitions: from never uttering the name of Shakespeare's "MacBeth" (the play, which involves witchcraft, is alleged to be cursed, so you're supposed to call it "The Scottish Play") to never speaking the last word of a play when in rehearsal (because it's bad luck to perform a play if there is no audience), to always leaving the upstage center light (called a "ghost light") lit in an empty theatre (it keeps ghosts away). And in place of "good luck" one is supposed to say "break a leg." But where does this phrase come from?
There are many theories concerning the origin of this phrase. Some people believe it's a reference to John Wilkes Booth, who broke a leg jumping onto the stage at Ford's Theatre after putting a bullet in Abraham Lincoln's brain. Others think it's a reference to legendary stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, who only had one leg. Both of these are considered unlikely, as they date too far before the first known usage of the phrase (in an essay by Edna Ferber in 1939) to be likely origins.
It's possible that the theatrical use of "break a leg" relates to an alternate meaning of the phrase, which is "to make a strenuous effort." Or it could relate to the act of bowing, in which one bends at the knee, essentially breaking the straight line of the leg.
The most plausible explanation is that the phrase comes from the German phrase "Hals und Beinbruch," which means "neck and leg fracture." This phrase was used by World War I pilots to wish each other luck before flights. "Hals und Beinbruch" is believed by some to have been adapted from the Yiddish "Hatsloche un Broche," which means "success and blessing," because of the similarity in pronunciation.