Break a Leg - writercize #106

As a theater-lover, actress-at-heart and wordsmith, my curiosity was piqued this weekend thinking about the phrase "break a leg" after I wished it on a cousin for good luck.  I love, love, love word origins and learning about where phrases come from, so I decided to go on an internet hunt to see if I could find out why we use such an odd phrase in the theater. 

I began my acting "career" (which lasted through school, with no attempt ever made at the true profession - though one day when my kids are big I daydream of returning to the stage through a community troupe) in Kindergarten, playing The Little Red Hen in ... The Little Red Hen.  I sowed the seeds, baked the bread and bit off the poor little pig and the duck's heads for not helping me prepare the meal.  It was love at first curtain.  And I distinctly remember the 5th grader video taping our play whisper, "Break a leg!" just before we called action.  To non-theater people, it may sound like a very odd, frightening phrase, but if you don't hear it before heading onstage, you get a little freaked out with superstitions.  At least I would.  The one time I didn't hear it, I ended up having to eat an entire bag of wet marshmallows in a scene - a joke played on me closing night by the stagehands.  Not good.  Just saying!

writercize:  Pick a phrase with an origin that you are curious about.  Research the origins and educate!  Leave your response as a comment.

Click "read more" to see the writercize sample response about how the term "Break A Leg" purportedly came to be.

writercizer sample response:

Where does the phrase "break a leg" originate?

Oddly enough, for such a colorful phrase, no one has been able to track down the true origin or first use of the term "break a leg," although there are two theories that pop up most frequently.  It is generally agreed upon that the phrase first entered the actors' vocabulary in the early 1900s.

The first is the superstition that to wish a person good luck is to tempt the devil, evil spirits, fate, bad vibes or whatever negative energy one may imagine causes illness and despair.  In order to keep the devil away, fellow actors would wish negativity and pain upon one another, thus tricking the devil and bringing nothing but good luck and success.

The second is simply that in the act of curtsying, an actor bends, or breaks the line of, his/her leg.  Therefore, after a successful performance, the audience would request a bow and the actor/actress would "break a leg."

It is interesting to note that according to the wikipedia author on the subject, the phrase is also used in Germany and Poland, and that during WWI pilots in Germany were wished a "neck and leg fracture" as a way to say have a good landing.  The timing in the early 1900s is aligned closely with the origin in the theater, but there is no further connection to be made.

Much more ancient origins are also noted.  In ancient Greek theater, instead of applauding, patrons apparently stomped so strongly that if it was a really good show, audience members might literally break a leg.  In Elizabethan theater, patrons banged their chairs on the floor, similarly breaking a leg, though in this case of an inanimate object.  It is odd that if the origins date back to Greek theater the phrase would not appear until the early 1900s, so I don't know how accurate this reason may be, but it is an interesting theory.  Perhaps someone studying the history of theater ran across this form of applause and brought it to contemporary actors.

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