The Origins of Theatrical Phrases

Did you ever wonder where some of those strange phrases come from that you hear all the time in show business?

Well we are here to pull the curtain back and reveal their origins!



You may recognise this one already. This is often used before the start of a performance, and is said to performers (and anyone backstage) instead of saying ‘good luck’. 

Although you may know that saying ‘good luck’ is actually considered bad luck in the theatre world, you might not know where the phrase ‘break a leg’ comes from.

Some say the term originated during Elizabethan times when, instead of applause, the audience would bang their chairs on the ground — and if they liked it enough, the leg of the chair would break.

The origin which is most common however (and the one I like the most) goes back to early theatre when at the performance the ensemble actors had to queue up to go onto the stage and would enter the stage crossing the ‘leg line’ just in the wing. Thus ‘breaking’ the leg onto the stage. This would mean they could go on stage and then get paid. If actors were not performing, they had to stay behind the ‘leg line’ which also meant they wouldn’t get paid.

So for those performers who got to go onstage it was definitely a good thing to ‘break a leg’.

Therefore we wish our fellow actors to also ‘break a leg’ and so the superstition continues to ensure they can keep performing and have a good show!




If you look up the term ‘winging it’ there are a couple of meanings. However one of the main origins, as you would expect, comes from the theatre. 


As you may know, the sections of the stage (stage left and right), which are hidden from view from the audience are called the ‘wings’. So the idea of ‘winging it’ comes from the idea that if an understudy performer, who had maybe watched the performance from the wings, but not had much rehearsal time themselves, was brought in at the last minute, they would then be ‘winging’ the performance. 


So the next time you feel like you’re ‘winging it’ just remember those poor understudy performers who had to go out in front of an audience without enough rehearsal!  


A few more fun ones…

A 'showstopper'

When a part of a performance is so good, the audience reaction is enough for the show to be unintentionally halted until it calms down. This phrase was first used around the year 1916, and is now usually attributed to songs that bring the house down.


‘In the limelight’

In the 1800s, stages were lit by heating the mineral lime, which created a bright white light for the performers to be seen by all. Therefore, if you’re at the centre of attention, you’re said to be in the ‘limelight’.



This isn't strictly a saying, but something we felt you should know. Back in the day, backstage crews were hired from the crews of ships as much of the rigging in theatres was similar to that of a ship. The sailors would use codes in the form of whistles to communicate the scene changes. If an actor whistled backstage, it might confuse the crew into initiating a scene change, risking injury and even possible death of a performer. It's probably less likely to have that sort of effect nowadays, but still, don't whistle during a show.