Q From G A Michael: What is the origin and meaning of the expression break a leg, said to persons who are preparing to appear in a theatrical production?
A Of all theatrical superstitions, this attempt to ward off the forces of darkness by wishing one’s fellow performers the opposite of good luck is the one that’s perhaps best known outside the profession. It belongs with other superstitions, such as that it’s bad luck to whistle in a theatre, that you should never utter the final line of a play at the dress rehearsal, or that you must never say the name of the Scottish Play in the green room. Actors have always been a superstitious bunch, as you might expect from a profession in which employment is sporadic, audiences fickle and reputations fragile.
The saying is widely used among actors and musicians in the theatre today, sometimes before every performance, but more often reserved for first night. Where it comes from has for decades been a source of dispute and I’ve collected the following speculations:
We may discard all of these on the grounds of varying degrees of implausibility. A key factor is that most of the stories assume that break a leg is an old expression, whereas it’s actually quite modern. The earliest known example in print refers to a show with that title in 1957. The saying must, of course, be older for it to have been borrowed for the title and there is anecdotal evidence from theatrical memoirs and personal recollection that it has been around since the 1930s, but not before.
Similar expressions are known from other languages: the French say Merde! (a term that has been borrowed by dancers in the English and American theatre) and Germans say Hals- und Beinbruch, “neck and leg break”, as ways of wishing someone good luck without any fear of supernatural retaliation. It is sometimes said that the German expression is actually a corruption of a Hebrew blessing hatzlakha u-brakha, “success and blessing”, which may have been borrowed via Yiddish. Whatever its source, the most plausible theory is that Hals- und Beinbruch was transferred into the American theatre (in which Yiddish- or German-speaking immigrant Jews were strongly represented) sometime after World War I.
[Thanks to Julane Marx for helping to research this piece.]