‘Break a leg!’ - Why do we say it?

Break a leg! That was my teacher’s unique way of wishing me luck for my first theatre performance. Sounds strange, right? Welcome to the world of theatre where saying “good luck” is considered bad luck.

Updated - May 17, 2024 02:38 pm IST

Published - May 17, 2024 02:00 pm IST

One of two things can be said about superstition: it can be an acquired habit or an inherited trait that is passed down via families or cultures. It is a known fact that superstition is at odds with reason.

In theatre, each troupe has its norms however several beliefs are almost universal in the theatre world. The phrase “break a leg” is one example of artist jargon that has seeped into the theatrical world. Though the phrase’s exact root is a mystery, there are a few theories as to how this odd tradition came to be.

Theory 1
Robert Wilson Lynd initially wrote about “Break a leg” in a newspaper in 1921. In his work “A Defence of Superstition,” the urbane academic essayist discussed the widespread impact of superstition in horse racing and theatre. He explained that in horse racing, one should never wish someone luck because doing so could make one’s luck too strong. Instead, you might say something like, “I hope your horse breaks a leg.” To tempt the spirits of fate, who favoured the humble, this acted as a sort of psychological concept in reverse.
Theory 2
In theatres in the 1920s, there was an inside joke that went something like this: newbie actors waiting in the wings would make fun of experienced actors by telling them to “break a leg,” which would’ve allowed the newbies to replace them. 
Theory 3
The idiom’s historical roots are even further explored by another theory. When someone bent their leg in a curtsy or bow, it was referred to as “breaking a leg” in Old English. This version of the statement could have been a method to support performers for a successful performance till the end, rather than mockingly hoping someone becomes too hurt to perform.
Theory 4
According to a different theory, instead of applauding, viewers in Elizabethan England occasionally smashed their seats—including the chair legs—on the ground. 
Theory 5
According to the most widely accepted theory breaking a leg refers to an actor crossing the stage’s ‘leg line’ - where the line-up for ensemble actors used to be in the early days of theatre. Actors were required to remain behind the “leg line” while they were not acting, which also meant they would not be paid. Telling the performer to “break a leg” would mean that you were hoping they would get to do a paid performance. 

Whatever its origins—whether genuine or not—”break a leg” eventually developed into an everyday phrase in the world of theatre. 

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