Break a leg

Michael Quinion TheEditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Mon Dec 2 17:11:26 UTC 2002

We had a discussion about 18 months ago concerning the origin of this
theatrical expression.

I've recently been looking into it for a piece and have been struck
by the paucity of examples in print. It's not in the OED, there are
no examples I can find in out-of-copyright works (suggesting it is
indeed from the 1920s at the earliest, as some dictionaries suggest)
and my earliest written examples are from the 1980s. Could one of our
indefatigable researchers turn their databases towards it for me?

Also, an American theatrical friend is sure that he used to hear it
as "neck and leg break", which would suggest - if his memory is not
playing him false - that the supposed German origin of the expression
is likely to be the right one.

Dating is important here, as it could provide pointers towards which
of the completing stories of its origin are true. Certainly, from the
evidence, the common supposition among actors that it dates from the
eighteenth century is quite wrong.

Michael Quinion
Editor, World Wide Words
E-mail: <TheEditor at>
Web: <>

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