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What does break a leg mean?

September 24th, 2008

Hey, break a leg out there! Now how do you perceive that? If you are not really into theatre and acting that much, you may take offense. But in the world of acting it really means good luck. Why would you say such an awful thing to an actor or actress that you wanted to do well? Shouldn’t you be telling them, “Hey, I hope you do great out there!”?

Actually, there are a few theories as to why people often say this cliché before an actor or actress goes to perform. The most widely accepted theory is that it is actually considered bad luck to wish an actor good luck, so obviously wishing bad luck, such as breaking a leg, is really wishing good luck. You get it? Another theory is based on the fact that the Oxford English Dictionary lists 57 definitions of the word break, just as a verb; one of which is “to deviate from a straight line.” Therefore they say that the term, break a leg, means to break the straight line of the leg by bending at the knee to bow or curtsey. Another form of this theory has to do with the fact that in older days the audience used to tip the actors and actresses for their performance by throwing coins on the stage at the end, and the actors and actresses must then “break a leg” to bend down and collect their earnings. And still another theory is about the curtains, yes the curtains. The side curtains are called legs, and anytime an actor or actress passes through a curtain, it is referred to as “breaking the curtain” so when they come from behind the side curtains they are “breaking a leg.” One of the less believed theories is that the saying was inspired by John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassinator. After he shot President Lincoln he then leapt to the stage to try and run and broke his leg on impact. There is also a theory that it is said to refer to a very famous actress, Sarah Bernhardt, because she had but one leg. One more theory is that it is said so that you will go on stage and get your big break in your career. And last but not least is the believed origin of the term. In Germany they say “Hals und Beinbruch” to their actors and actresses which means break your neck and leg, and it is thought that this saying was taken and butchered from the Hebrew blessing “hatzlakha u-brakha” which means success and blessing. And since both German and Yiddish were often used in the Jewish contingent of the US theatre it is quite believable that this is where that ever so confusing term “break a leg out there!” comes from.

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