Why Break a leg? Meaning and Origins of Break a Leg

break a leg meaning

“Break a Leg!” – Where did it come from? and why do people say break a leg? What is the Break a leg meaning?

Have you ever thought about the numerous strange idioms that get used in conversations? Like “quit cold turkey,” “spill the beans,” “knock on wood,” “take it with a grain of salt” and of course: “break a leg”. Now if you’re a non-native English speaker, hearing this phrase, in particular, must sound pretty strange; people wish harm on others. But don’t worry that’s not what it means, it’s just another strange, and wonderful English idiom. This phrase is actually used to wish people, especially actors good luck before a performance.

The history, origin, and meaning of this idiom are actually quite fascinating to learn about. If you’re interested, stay tuned to learn all about this strange idiom that people use so often. We will also provide some examples of similar idioms, as well as when and where it is appropriate to use the phrase “Break a Leg,” which will really help you improve and learn English speaking.

Meaning of Break a Leg

break a leg meaning
Source: GIPHY

Source: YourDictionary

 “Break a Leg” is an English idiom used in the context of theatre or other performing arts, to wish performers “Good Luck”. This phrase is commonly said to performers before they go on stage. Although it may sound like a threat, rather than a supportive comment, this phrase has become so popular that it is being used outside of the theatre context too.

Origin of Break a Leg

Source: TranscendenceTheatre & ReadersDigest

Where did the phrase “Break a Leg” come from? How did it become such a commonly used phrase? And why do people say it? There are quite a few theories surrounding when, and where exactly this phrase originated:

Origin in Ancient Times

Some believe that it originated in ancient Greece, where people stomped their feet instead of applauding at the end of a performance, and if they stomped long, and hard enough they’d break a leg.

Another theory is that it originated during Elizabethan times, when people in the audience would bang their chairs on the ground, instead of applauding, if they liked the performance enough and banged their chairs hard enough, the leg of the chair would break.

Origin in Other Languages

Some believe that the phrase was adapted from similar phrases in different languages like “Hals und Beinbruch” in German, which means “neck and leg break.” Or the Hebrew blessing “Hatzlakha u-brakha” which means “success and blessing.”

Origin in Theatres

A popular theory is that it originated in the early 20th century, in the American theatre community. A community known to be a bit superstitious, they believed that if you wished someone “good luck” it would actually bring the performer bad luck, so they decided to tell one another to “break a leg” that way the opposite would happen – the performer would give a flawless performance.

The Leg Line?

Another popular theory is that it refers to actors breaking the “leg line” mentioned earlier. Ensemble actors would queue behind this line in the early theatre days, in the hopes of being called upon to perform. If you weren’t called up to the stage, you’d remain behind the “leg line” and would not get paid. So, performers would tell each other to “break a leg” – meaning they would wish their fellow performers luck in their role and their opportunity to get paid.

So we don’t know exactly where or even when this phrase originated, but we know one thing: it’s always used to wish someone “good luck.”

Now that you know a few theories surrounding its interesting history and origin, let’s get into how to use the phrase in conversations.

Use Break a Leg in Conversations

break a leg meaning

Source: Freepik

Source: YourDictionary

Even though it is most commonly used in theatre, “break a leg” has gradually made its way into everyday conversational English. Since it is a way to wish someone “good luck” it is acceptable to use it in non-theatre settings too. Below is a list of different ways to use “break a leg” in conversation:

  • I know you can do it! Break a leg!
  • Break a leg at your job interview today!
  • Tell Jean to break a leg at her college interview today!
  • You all look wonderful in your costumes! Break a leg!
  • I heard your presentation to the boss is this afternoon. Break a leg!

There are various idioms used in English that, like “break a leg” might sound strange or even violent but actually has a sweet and caring meaning behind them. If you’re looking to improve your English, check out this list of the best online English speaking courses.

Similar Idioms to Break a Leg

break a leg meaning

Source: Freepik

Source: YourDictionary

If you want to wish an actor or performer good luck on the stage, there are more ways to do it than saying “break a leg.” Here are a few similar theatre phrases to use:

  • toi toi toi – Opera singers recite this as a superstitious way to ward off evil spirits. The phrase sounds like spitting, an ancient way to scare off spirits or warn the devil away.
  • in bocca al lupo – This is used to wish an Italian performer good luck, the phrase means “in the mouth of the wolf.” If you say this phrase to them, they will call back crepi!, which means “may it die.” This refers back to Italian hunters who would wish each other luck, and not ending up eaten by a wolf.
  • chookas – Australian used to assess the crowd, to determine how well they’d be eating that night. A small crowd would mean a small meal, a large crowd would mean chooka (chicken). Chookas is slang for the phrase “chooka it is!”

Wish for Good Luck!

In English, there are also many different ways to wish someone “good luck” instead of saying “break a leg.” Check out the list below to learn some fun new ways to wish someone luck in English:

  • Fingers crossed
  • The Pagans in Europe would cross their index fingers with another person to make a cross, this was seen as a sign of good luck, as it was believed that benevolent spirits reside in the intersections of crosses. Once two people had made a cross, they could make a wish and the spirits would favour them. With time the gesture evolved to one person being able to do it alone using their index- and middle fingers.
  • Knock ‘em dead
  • The phrase came into use in the 1890’s in American vaudeville. It seems as though the relationship between performer and audience is often seen as combative, hence the use of phrases like: knock ‘em dead or slay them. All of which sound quite violent, but are also phrases used to wish a performer good luck.
  • Knock on wood/touch wood
  • In ancient pre-Christian culture people believed that touching/knocking on wood called upon the spirits or gods of the trees that offered protection. It was also believed that bad luck could be avoided by touching wood. Christians link the practice to the wood of the cross from the crucifixion.
  • break a leg meaning
    Source: GIPHY
    What does Break a Leg mean?

    It means “Good luck!”

    Why do people say Break a Leg?

    There are many stories about how people started using this phrase to wish for good luck. One of the most popular origin of this phrase is from theaters. The performers will wish each other to break legs out of superstition, wishing something that would turn out to be the complete opposite. Then the performers will give the most perfect performance ever.

    What is another way to say Break a Leg?

    You can say “Fingers crossed”, “Knock’em dead” or “Knock on wood”. These can all used to wish for good luck.

    Break a Leg on Your English Learning Journey!

    Now you understand the break a leg meaning. Whether you’re a performer waiting to take the stage, a student about to write a test, or just someone nervously waiting for a job interview, the phrase “break a leg” is meant to bring you good luck as you now know what “Break a leg” really means! It’s one English idiom with various possible origins and a firm, and steady place in our vocabulary. This article has also given various other phrases and words used to wish someone good luck. If you’re interested in finding out how to learn English or even how to say good luck in Chinese, check out AmazingTalker offering articles on a wide range of topics.

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