In English, there are many idioms that seem to make no sense at all. Still, people take and understand them perfectly, even though the saying may literally mean something negative. This is the case of wishing actors and actresses good luck by telling each other to ‘break a leg’ before performing at a play. In order to understand this phrase, it is of vital importance to learn about its origins.
There are different theories on the origin of the phrase ‘break a leg’. One of them suggests it dates back to Elizabethan times. Others make reference to ancient Greece, theater jargon, and even spiritual influence. Saying ‘good luck’ to a performer is actually considered to be bad luck.
If you have ever been to a theater, you may have heard the phrase ‘break a leg’. Strange as it may sound, it is taken as a positive wish of good luck. If you would like to know why people tell this to actors and actresses before performing, keep on reading and find out the different theories that hide behind this strange phrase.
An important thing to bear in mind when going to the theater is never to say ‘good luck’ to a performer before the play starts. This is considered of bad luck, and should anything go wrong during the performance, you would be the one to take blame for it. This belief, also taken as a superstition, does not only exist in English-speaking performers. In French theater, the equivalent is wishing ‘merde’ to one another before going on stage.
The origin of this belief can be traced to the antique saying that there is a spiritual presence in theaters. These spirits are constantly present before, during, and even after a play. People in the theatrical industry are certain that whatever is said off-stage is taken by them, and turned into the opposite. This way, whatever good thing you may wish will result in a negative way. But, on the other hand, if you wish them bad, the spirits will wreak havoc on your wishes and make good things happen.
Now that we know why good wishes are banned from theaters, we can continue with our objective and learn the different theories of the phrase ‘break a leg’. As you may already know, theater has existed for many years, and various traditions and phrases have survived all those years and we still apply them in our times.
The first theory suggests that the phrase makes reference to Elizabethan times. After a play, the audience would not clap their hands to show satisfaction. Instead, chairs would be banged against the floor. The better the performance, the stronger the banging. Imagine those poor wooden chairs being hit repeatedly against the floor. Breaking a chair leg during this celebration could mean only one thing: an excellent play. Nowadays breaking a chair to show happiness at the theater can get you into trouble, so we just kept the saying!
Another theory dates to ancient Greece. Greek people also lacked the tradition of applauding after a play. Furniture was not damaged, though. What they did instead was to stomp their feet onto the ground. Of course, there are no precedents of Greek people having a broken leg after an excellent play! However, the phrase makes reference to having such a good performance, people could accidentally harm themselves during the celebration.
Last, but not least, the third theory also dates a long time into the past. In the past, performers waited in line to be called into action. This queue was known as the ‘leg line’. Breaking the line meant it was your turn to go on stage. Of course, in order to do so, you had to be included in the play. So, breaking the leg line meant performing, and thus, getting paid. The phrase suffered some modifications throughout time and resulted in simply ‘breaking a leg’.
Whatever the theory, it is important to learn English idioms and use them when appropriate. But more important is to know what we are saying, and why we say it. Are there any other English idioms you may think of that sound strange? Share your thoughts, and we will include it in our next article!