July 2018
Southern Translation

Southern Translation

SENTENCE USAGE: "Melinda’s momma told her to break a leg before she went onstage at her senior play. Some of the other performers thought that was pretty mean!"

Why would someone wish such a thing on somebody?

It’s a phrase said to actors for good luck before they go onstage, especially on an opening night.

Theatrical types are well-known for their belief in superstitions, or at least for their willingness to make a show of pretending to believe in them. The term "break a leg" appears to come from the belief that one ought not to utter the words "good luck" to an actor. By wishing someone bad luck, it is supposed that the opposite will occur. Other superstitions are that it is bad luck to whistle in a theater, to say the final line of a play during dress rehearsal or to say the name of "the Scottish Play" in a theater’s green room.

Breaking a leg doesn’t seem to have much to do with good luck.

The word "break" has many meanings – the Oxford English Dictionary lists 57 distinct uses of it as a verb alone. That gives considerable scope for speculation over what is meant by this phrase. The most common interpretation in this context is "to deviate from a straight line; to unstraighten the leg by bending at the knee, by bowing or curtsying."

Break a leg also means "make a strenuous effort." There are many references to the phrase used that way and predating the earliest theatrical good luck charm meaning. For example, from The Hammond Times, Indiana, 1942:

"Whatever the army or navy want, the Continental Roll [and Steel Foundry] will turn out ... Or break a leg trying."

Also, from the Evening State Journal, Nebraska, 1937:

"With all the break-a-leg dancing, there are many who still warm to graceful soft shoe stepping."

So, it is possible that when an actor is told to "break a leg," he or she may just be being exhorted to put on an energetic, exciting performance.

There are many other possible derivations in circulation, mostly referring to the good luck message. In diminishing order of plausibility, these are:

  1. Put on a performance good enough that you will have to bend your knee in a bow or curtsy to acknowledge the applause.

  2. Impress the audience so much that you will need to bend down to pick up the coins they throw onto the stage.

  3. Pass out onto the stage to receive a curtain call (the side curtains on a stage are known as legs).

  4. Go onstage and have your "big break."

  5. Evoke the powers of the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt, who had one leg.

  6. A reference to John Wilkes Booth, who broke his leg when jumping onstage, attempting to flee after shooting President Lincoln.

It is tempting to believe the phrase to be ancient and to imagine it whispered to Tudor minstrels as they went onstage at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The current meaning is nothing as old. The term originates in the American theater in the 20th century and all the earliest references to its use are from U.S. sources. The earliest citation found in print is in an edition of the U.S. newspaper The Charleston Gazette in May 1948.

That pretty much rules out the Sarah Bernhardt and John Wilkes Booth interpretations that, as well as being rather fanciful, date from too far before any printed version.

There is a German saying, "Hals und Beinbruch," meaning "break your neck and leg" that dates back to at least World War II as Luftwaffe slang, and is, therefore, earlier than any known English version. It may be this is a corruption of the Hebrew blessing "hatzlakha u-brakha," meaning "success and blessing."

German and Yiddish were commonly used languages of the large Jewish contingent of the U.S. theater world. We can’t be certain of the origin of the phrase, but it’s highly likely to have migrated to English from the earlier German and Hebrew versions.