more on "break a leg"

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Sun Mar 15 14:45:42 UTC 2009

I wasn't saying the anti-good-luck-wishing superstition was peculiar to
acting. I was saying, in response to the post about there not being such a
superstition in general, that just because there isn't a broad superstition
doesn't mean the superstition can't exist in particular subcultures and
circumstances. (And I'm not convinced there isn't a broad,
anti-good-luck-wishing superstition; it crops up again and again. Another
example, from baseball this time, is not mentioning a no-hitter in progress.
If we keep this thread going, I think we'll find dozens of other examples.
Just because we don't have a word for something, doesn't mean the concept
doesn't exist--and we do have such a word, "jinx.")

As to "jinx," I was thinking of the sense of jinx referring to the
superstition of saying something and then not having it come true, as in
"now it's not going to happen since you just jinxed it." I was not putting
"jinx" forward as being linguistically related to "break a leg;" I was
putting forward an example of anti-good-luck wishing superstition.

And "break a leg" is also a relatively recent development, more recent than
"jinx." I think the earliest citation anyone has found is from 1957 ("Nobody
Said 'Break Leg'--So Actress Does It," Union-Bulletin (Walla Walla, WA), 29
May 1957, Evening, 7.)--although there are personal recollections that date
the phrase to the 1930s.

(A 1954 newspaper article refers to "neck and leg break." The same article
also says that the director of that particular production had literally
broken his leg during a rehearsal, yet the article does not refer to the
phrase "break a leg" specifically, indicating that that particular phrase
was not in the lexicon of that troop of actors or the reporter. "Director is
Hurt During Rehearsal," News (Frederick, MD), 18 June 1954, 4.)

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
Sent: Sunday, March 15, 2009 1:01 AM
Subject: Re: more on "break a leg"

A couple of minor points
1) I am not convinced that the anti-good-luck-wishing superstition is or
has been peculiar to the acting subculture--when everyone is convinced
of something as a fact when there is little evidence of it, it's time to
reconsider its status as an urban legend
2) "jinx" is a matter of coincidence that results in or is indicative of
bad luck, and has little to do with wishing-good-luck superstition; jinx
is also a fairly recent expression--which may or may not also be true of
the underlying superstition. More importantly, the term "jinx" is
useless since it was in use as a personal name at least as late as 1911.

Dave Wilton wrote:
> You may be looking at culture too broadly, at least in terms of the
> expression.
> The English phrase is almost exclusively associated with the theater, a
> profession that has many similar superstitions (e.g., it is bad luck to
> refer to "Macbeth" by its name, "the Scottish play" is preferred). The
> that there is no general fear of wishing someone good luck does not
> against such a superstition in a specific subculture. I don't know the
> contexts in which the similar phrases in other languages are used, so I
> can't speak to them.
> Then again, there is also the rich tradition of the jinx, of which "break
> leg" is merely one example. So I wouldn't grant that there is no general
> superstition against wishing someone good luck.

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