It is by far not the only superstition among actors – for example, you mustn’t whistle in the theatre, and you should never say the name of the ‘Scottish Play’ – but it is one of the best known.
Tracing its origins uncovers a host of theories and stories going all the way back to Ancient Greece. Most of the tales are apocryphal, like the 1766 prank-gone-wrong, when Samuel Foote, the manager of a London theatre, went horse riding with incorrigible trickster, the Duke of York. The Duke gave Foote an unruly horse, and it threw him during the ride, breaking his leg. The Duke was said to have been so embarrassed by his prank that he granted Foote the theatre license he had been striving for. It turned his Little Theatre into Theatre Royal, Haymarket but it is unlikely to be the source of the phrase.
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- During World War II, German pilots would commonly say to each other, “Hals und Beinbruch” – meaning ‘neck and leg break’ – as a gesture of good luck. Etymologists think that this may have been a corruption of a Hebrew blessing, ‘hatzlakha u-brakha’ – or ‘success and blessing’.
- In Ancient Greece, instead of clapping at performances, audiences would stomp their feet, so the more they liked the play, the more they stomped. And the more they stomped, they more chance there was of breaking a leg. This appeared again in Elizabethan times when audiences would show their appreciation by stomping their chairs – again, if they stomp hard enough, the chair leg may break.
- Finally, to ‘break a leg’ could simply mean to bow or curtsy, so the phrase may have been used to wish for a performance so good that the audience would want several curtain calls.
What adds credence to this final theory is that the side curtains in theatres are sometimes known as ‘legs’, so to break a leg means to step through the curtain and take a bow.