Why Do People Say Break a Leg?

The other day I was thinking about how much I just used to hate when people said, “Break a leg.” It’s literally the worst thing that can happen to a performance artist. We never wish upon a truck driver to lose their cargo, or tell a plumber, “Hey, I hope you totally ruin my house insulation while installing that tankless water heater!” But, that was until I found out how the saying came to be and was subsequently popularized. So, today I decided to share that with you guys, as I’m sure most of you would love to find out.

Of course, I had already known that the expression meant “good luck”, but I never really understood how it came about. Now, there’s a lot of speculation on this matter, but each version of how the saying came to be is stranger than the last.

For example, the first documented instance when it was said was in regards to horse racing. Horse racing aficionados deemed it bad luck to wish someone luck, so they opted for something negative and insulting instead, such as “break a leg”.

Another possible source of this saying is the German “Hals und beinbruch”. The translated meaning is “land safely” in English, but the literal translation is “break all your bones”. German pilots used this saying to salute each other and wish for a safe flight.

Since we tend to associate bad events with the circumstances and events that led up to them, most of these speculations are deeply rooted in superstition. But, there’s another version to this story that dates back to the Georgian era, actually related to theater. During a performance of Shakespeare’s historical play, Richard III, a professional actor by the name of David Garrick is said to have broken a leg during the play, but due to him being so spellbound by the role and the atmosphere on stage, he kept on with the show and barely even noticed the severe injury. From thereon out, it’s assumed that the phrase “break a leg” started circulating among actors as a wish for good performance.

Whichever version of the story you prefer to believe is completely up to you as there’s no consensus whatsoever. I still get slightly annoyed when someone tells me to break a leg before going out on stage, but at least I can have a chuckle to myself knowing the absurd stories about how people started saying it.

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