Those of you who have ever spent anytime around actors have most likely heard of the term “Break a leg.” The famous saying that actors use in place of good luck before a performance. Now we all just accept it and write it off as a normal actor thing to do, but how did it all start, and why? That was the same question we asked and here is what we found for you.
The phrase Break a Leg had had many meanings for various groups of people since its earliest conception. The earliest forms of the phrase in the theatrical community are actually found much later in the phrases history beginning around 1948. The first record of it in the theatre is from a newspaper ask column in The Charleston Gazette. The column says the following.
- What are some of the well-known superstitions of the theatre?
- Superstitions of the stage are numerous and many are particular to individual actors and actresses. That it is bad luck to whistle in a dressing room is a widely accepted belief. Another is that one actor should not wish another good luck before a performance but say instead ‘I hope you break a leg.’
This example shows the earliest signs of the phrase in the English vernacular, and in the American theatre. Now the idea of what ‘break a leg’ is actually meant for is disputed, and there are many ideas besides the conventional meaning of good luck. These meanings are things such as
- Put on a performance good enough that you will have to bend your knee in a bow or curtsy to acknowledge the applause.
- Impress the audience so much that you will need to bend down to pick up the coins they throw onto the stage.
- Pass out onto the stage to receive a curtain call (the side curtains on a stage are known as legs).
- Go on stage and have your ‘big break’.
All of these are plausible ideas, but much less likely for why the term began and its original meanings. The most likely of them all is the idea that to ‘break a leg’ is meant to be a way of telling an actor to be so good he deserves to bow after his performance. This is likely because it has been passed down through the ages of what ‘break a leg’ really means along with the more common meaning of the phrase.
Well now you have learned where one of the most famous phrases in the American theatre originated. There is no way to truly pinpoint the exact time and person who coined the phrase first, but nonetheless it will remain one of theatres oldest sayings until its dying days.