Hals- und Beinbruch (was "break a leg")

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Tue Jan 23 23:13:26 UTC 2001

   Jan Ivarsson (Jan. 23) writes:
>Nigel Rees' Dictionary of Phrase & Allusion (Bloomsbury 1993) has
>the phrase and confirms my opinion:
>"This traditional greeting is said before a performance, especially
>a first night (...) Morris (Dict. of Word and Phrase Origins, 1977)
>has it based on a German good luck expression, Hals- und Beinbruch."

     I'd just like to clarify the rationale behind this strange
expression of good luck. (German: Hals = neck; Bein = leg; Bruch =
break; so one is literally wishing that the person break his/her neck
and leg).

     A medieval superstition was that devils exist and are
particularly eager to strike down someone who is happy or optimistic.
But precautions could be taken.
One was noise, which was believed to have the power to frighten away
devils,  and this explains the clinking of glasses at a happy
occasion, like a party It also explains the still modern custom of
breaking dishes the night before a German wedding (Polterabend,
literally "rumpus evening"), which survives in the Jewish custom of
the groom smashing a glass with his foot just before he kisses the

    The other precaution was to outwit the devil (Fortunately, so goes
the belief) devils are unbelievably stupid). So if I want to wish
someone good luck, I actually wish him bad luck (May you break your
neck and leg.)  The person to whom I am saying this knows that I
really wish him good luck but am saying Hals- und Beinbruch just in
case a devil is in the vicinity and might overhear us.

    Now, of course, we deal merely with traditional expressions of
good luck, with no thought given to devils.

---Gerald Cohen

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