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

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Tue Jan 23 12:36:27 UTC 2001

The principal elements of the Jan Ivarsson/Jerry Cohen explanation
concur with those of Cecil Adams' consultant (below), but I confess I
like some of the outlier theories found on the web.  Besides the John
Wilkes Booth one mentioned below, there are, in no particular order
The rather terrible curse may have had a more benign origin. Much
earlier in stage history, when superstition had a less frightening
hold on the craft, actors and their followers
used a more gracious greeting: "May you break your leg," by which it
was meant that the evening's performance would be of such grandeur
that the actor would be obliged to break his leg
- that is bend his knee - in a deep bow acknowledging the audience's applause.
Evidently, in the days of early vaudeville, the producers would book
more performers than could possibly perform in the given time of the
show - since "bad" acts could be pulled before their
completion... so, in order to insure that the show didn't start
paying people who don't actually perform, there was a general policy
that a performer did NOT get paid unless they actually
performed on-stage. So the phrase "break a leg" referred to breaking
the visual plane of the legs that lined the side of the stage.  i.e.
"Hope you break a leg and get on-stage so that you get paid."
I've run into considerable debate over the origin of this one. My
favorite (having understudied a few times) is that it came from the
understudies telling the primaries to "break a leg" enough
times that it came to be considered bad luck if they didn't say it. A
more likely origin is from Shakespeare's time when "to break a leg"
meant to "take a bow".
I always heard that in the Greek times, people didn't applaud--they
stomped for their appreciation. So if they stomped long enough, they
would break a leg.
and my personal favorite:
In the nineteenth century theatre, when it was the norm for actors
like Keen, Tree, and Irving to be actor managers. They would perform
a role many times and for many years. When a new
actor would take over a particular role that had become closely
associated with one of these legendary actors he was told "break the
legend". Over time this gradually got changed to
"break a leg".

and now, here's Cecil:

What's the origin of "break a leg" in show business?


Dear Straight Dope:

Where did the term "break a leg" originate in theater, and why is it
considered a better alternative than "good luck"? --Luke

SDSTAFF Ken replies:

There are a number of theories about the origin. The most colorful is
that the phrase refers to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by
actor John Wilkes Booth in Ford's Theater,
when Booth jumped from Lincoln's box to the stage, breaking his leg.
However, the phrase was first recorded in print in the early 1900s,
and is unlikely to refer to an incident half a
century earlier.

Eric Partridge, in his Dictionary of Catchphrases, suggests that
"break a leg" originated as a translation of a similar expression
used by German actors: Hals- und Beinbruch
(literally, "a broken neck and a broken leg.") The German phrase
traces back to early aviators, possibly during World War I, spreading
gradually to the German stage and then to
British and American theaters.

Why would people twist a wish for dreadful injury into one for good
luck? Evan Morris, of www.word-detective.com, suggests that, "Popular
folklore down through the ages is full
of warnings against wishing your friends good luck. To do so is to
tempt evil spirits or demons to do your friend harm. Better to outwit
the demons (who must be rather dim, it seems
to me) by wishing your friend bad fortune."

Morris goes on to cite the stage directions for the opening night a
few years ago of the reconstructed Globe Theater in London, which
"supposedly called for two actors to swing
dramatically from a balcony down to the stage on ropes. One of the
actors slipped and, you guessed it, broke his leg."

Straight Dope Staff Dex wants to add that it's not wise to use the
phrase outside of the theatre. He was having a conversation with a
cantor, about to lead a religious service for 1,000
people, and he smiled, "Break a leg." The cantor wasn't familiar with
the phrase or with the theatre tradition, and Dex says the look he
got would have withered an artichoke.

Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

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