What does “Break a Leg” actually mean?
written by Jess Tomlinson
Most performers use the common expression “break a leg” to wish luck to whoever is going on stage. But where did it actually originate from? There are A LOT of speculations- some with rather tenuous links to the language of Ancient Greece or to the hearty appreciation of the Elizabethans who stamped their legs instead of clapping, possibly “breaking a leg”. But aside from these somewhat dubious origins, I found some rather interesting theories.
There is, of course, a story of someone literally breaking their leg. Dating back to 1766 when Samuel Foote, the Manager of London’s Little Theatre, was riding with the Duke of York who had pranked him with a faulty horse when they went riding. As you can assume, the unfortunate Mr Foote broke his leg, but it did lead to the Duke of York feeling so guilty that he gave Foote a theatre licence. From this, the phrase suddenly meant achieving success from disaster.
As theatre performers are superstitious folk, saying the two words “good luck” under the roof of a theatre was too much for them, believing that these were buzz words for the evil spirits, to purposely give them bad luck. As an opposite to this, they naturally made the decision that “break a leg” (which was really bad luck) would bring them good luck. I suppose this is slightly logical…
And then we have the understudies, who don’t often get the chance to hear the words “you’re going on stage tonight” never mind “good luck”. So, according to a document by Edna Ferber called A Peculiar Treasure, the understudies would sit at the back row of the audience and politely request that the principles would break their leg, so they could go and take the limelight.
What I want to show is that it doesn’t always matter where these phrases we say come from. For years the term “break a leg” has had positive connotations for many performers and it has become a term in its own right. We can forget the many speculations of its origin, and be happy in the fact that it has been a big, happy, smiling GOOD LUCK for so many performers in it’s time.