Break a leg

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Mon Dec 2 19:09:37 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.

Partridge's "Dictionary of Catchphrases," Paul Beale, ed. has a pretty good
write up on the phrase. No specific citations before the '70s though.
Although it does record actors recalling the phrase from the '30s and '40s.
HDAS has some cites from the '60s, IIRC.

Consensus seems to be that it's from the '20s, but I haven't seen actual
citations earlier than those in HDAS.

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