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The expression reflects a theatrical superstition in which wishing a person "good luck" is considered bad luck. The expression is sometimes used outside the theatre as superstitions and customs travel through other professions and then into common use. Among professional dancers, the traditional saying is not "break a leg," but "merde".
Urbane Irish nationalist Robert Wilson Lynd published an article, "A Defence of Superstition", in the 1 October 1921, edition of the New Statesman, a British liberal political and cultural magazine, Lynd said that the theatre was the second-most superstitious institution in England, after horse racing. In horse racing, Lynd asserted, to wish a man luck is considered unlucky, so "You should say something insulting such as, 'May you break your leg!'" Lynd did not attribute the phrase in any way to theatre people, though he was familiar with many of them and was frequently backstage with the actors.
The earliest known example in print is from Edna Ferber's 1939 A Peculiar Treasure in which she writes about the fascination of the theater, "...and all the understudies sitting in the back row politely wishing the various principals would break a leg". In Bernard Sobel's 1948 The Theatre Handbook and Digest of Plays, he writes about theatrical superstitions: "...before a performance actors never wish each other good luck, but say 'I hope you break a leg.'" There is anecdotal evidence from theatrical memoirs and personal letters as early as the 1920s.
There are several theories behind the origin of the phrase. Few are supported by contemporary writings. The theories listed below are some of the more popular explanations.
To "break the leg" or "break a leg" is archaic slang for bowing or curtsying; placing one foot behind the other and bending at the knee "breaks" the line of the leg. In theatre, pleased audiences may applaud for an extended time allowing the cast to take multiple curtain calls, bowing to the audience.
In the time of Ancient Greece, people didn't clap. Instead, they stomped for their appreciation and if they stomped long enough, they would break a leg. Or, some would have it that the term originated during Elizabethan times when, instead of applause the audience would bang their chairs on the ground—and if they liked it enough, the leg of the chair would break.
In the time of Ancient Rome, gladiators would fight to the death as a form of popular entertainment in the colosseum. Spectators would sometimes shout "quasso cruris," the Latin equivalent of "break a leg." This essentially would be wishing them "good luck" by requesting they keep their lives and only cripple the other opponent by breaking his leg.
Some etymologists believe it to be an adaptation from the Yiddish translation into German. The phrase "Hatsloche un Broche" (הצלחה און ברכה) ("success and blessing") had been calqued from the German phrase "Hals- und Beinbruch" ("neck and leg fracture"), because of its similar pronunciation.
That seems even less likely than the "folk etymology" that it comes from the Yiddish theater's "mitn rekhtn fus (מיטן רעכטן פֿוס), "[get off on] the right foot", which is not opposite in sense. Supposedly "break a leg" is a mistranslation confusing "rekhtn" ("right") and "brekhn" ("break").
In the autobiography of Manfred von Richthofen, during the First World War pilots of the German Air Force are recorded as using the phrase "Hals- und Beinbruch" (neck and leg fracture) to wish each other luck before a flight.
The phrase has been adopted from German into Polish as "połamania nóg," "breaking of legs," with the word "połamanie," meaning fracturing, "połamania" being the genitive case. In Polish, "życzyć" "to wish," governs the genitive case, thus the underlying structure is "życzę ci połamania nóg," roughly translated as "I wish you a fracture of the legs." Both in German and Polish, the phrase is most typically used to wish an actor good luck before a performance, or a student good luck before an exam.
One popular, but false, etymology derives the phrase from the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The story goes that John Wilkes Booth, the actor turned assassin, claimed in his diary that he broke his leg leaping to the stage of Ford's Theatre after murdering the President. While Booth's roles as an actor are not well remembered, wishing an actor to "break a leg" is to wish them a performance worthy of remembrance. However, the fact that actors did not start wishing each other to "break a leg" until the 1920s (more than 50 years later) makes this an unlikely source. Furthermore the phrase has distinct origins in other languages that well predate the late 19th century. Also, some historians contend that he broke his leg when he fell from his horse trying to escape. They also cite that Booth often exaggerated and falsified his diary entries to make them more dramatic.
There are many non-literal references this expression could be referring to.
Some attribute the line to a performance of Shakespeare's Richard III, where the famed 18th century British actor, David Garrick, became so entranced in the performance that he was unaware of a fracture.
In the days of Vaudeville, companies would book more performers than could possibly make it onstage, but would only pay those who performed. Since the Renaissance, legs have been used as part of the masking in proscenium theaters, which remain the most popular style of theater to this day. Thus, to make it on stage, one had to enter the line of sight of the audience or "break a leg", to be paid.
Professional dancers do not wish each other good luck by saying "break a leg"; instead they say "Merde!", the French word for "shit". In turn, theater people have picked up this usage and may wish each other "merde", alone or in combination with "break a leg". In Spanish, the phrase is "mucha mierda", or "lots of shit".
Opera singers use "Toi Toi Toi", an idiom used to ward off a spell or hex, often accompanied by knocking on wood, and onomatopoeic, spitting (or imitating the sound of spitting). It was said that saliva had demon-banishing powers. From Rotwelsch tof, from Yiddish tov ("good", derived from the Hebrew טוב and with phonetic similarities to the Old German word for "Devil.") One explanation is that "toi toi toi" is the onomatopoeic rendition of spitting three times. Spitting three times over someone's head or shoulder is a gesture to ward off evil spirits. A similar-sounding expression for verbal spitting occurs in modern Hebrew as "Tfu, tfu" (here, only twice), which some say was borrowed from Russian.
An alternate operatic good luck charm, originating from Italy, is the phrase "in bocca al lupo!" ("In the mouth of the wolf") with the response "Crepi il lupo!" ("May the wolf die") (see Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Myth & Legend).
In Australia, the term "chookas" has been used also. According to one oral tradition, one of the performers would check audience numbers. If there were not many in the seats, the performers would have bread to eat following the performance. If the theatre was full they could then have "chooks" — Australian slang for chicken — for dinner. Therefore, if it was a full house, the performer would call out "Chookas!" It is now used by performers prior to a show regardless of the number of patrons; and may be a wish for a successful turnout.
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