Education Bug - a complete listing of educational resources

Follow EducationBug on Twitter

Language Arts

Break a Leg

In this article, learn why wishing someone to -break a leg- is a popular phrase that can be traced back hundreds of years. While scholars cannot agree on the origin, it is agreed that the meaning of -break a leg- remains the best way to wish a performer good luck before a show.

To wish someone to "break a leg" is one of the most popular sayings to wish someone good luck in reference to the performing arts and theatre, the true origins of this expression remain unknown. However, there are many theories surrounding where "break a leg" came from. There are many superstitions related to the theatre. Wishing someone "good luck" is one of them. Ironically it is actually bad luck to wish someone good luck who is about to go on stage for a performance. One theory behind the origination of this popular stage expression is that it is derived from the infamous incident with John Wilkes Booth and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in Fords Theater in Washington D.C. in 1865. After shooting Lincoln, Booth jumped to the stage to try to escape and he ended up breaking his leg in the process.

However, there are many scholars of theater who disagree with this theory since the expression, "break a leg" can be traced back further in history than the Booth/Lincoln incident. There are many who believe the expression refers to the rod that allows the curtain to be raised and lowered above the stage. This piece of equipment is called the "Leg." The idea is to be so successful on stage that the crowd demands so many curtain calls that the leg actually breaks.  Similarly, there is also a theory behind this poplar idiom that refers to the concept of the actor or performing having to walk past the curtain "leg" to enter to the stage, therefore "breaking a leg" prior to each performance.

Some have found a more literal explanation for the famous expression siting it as the act of bowing following a performance. When an actor bows after performing, they are literally "breaking" their leg by bending their knee to bow. 

There is also the antonym theory supporting the superstition side of the expression. If wishing an actor good luck is actually bad luck, then wishing them to break their leg (which can be construed as a bad thing) has got to mean good luck. 

"Break a leg" has also been traced back even further in history to the time of the Greeks and Ancient Rome. In Greece, instead of clapping at the end of a performance, the audience would stomp their feet to express their praise sometimes resulting in a broken leg from an audience member stomping their leg so hard. In the time of gladiator battles in Rome, it was fitting to encourage the gladiators to "break the leg" of their opponent as a way to succeed and win the fight. 

Regardless of the origin of this popular phrase, saying, or expression, "breaking a leg" continues to be an applicable form of wishing someone luck before any kind of performance.