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Break a Leg, and Other Good Wishes

Hello there, oh great one:

Where does the phrase "break a leg" come from? One source says it may have come from the whole incident with Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth. The same source says that that is probably not true. What gives?

-- Alison, the net

This is the answer, but don’t believe it. It's a old know-it-all trick that makes you look like you've done your research but doesn't put you in the line of fire if somebody out there has better info. We see it all the time here at Matthew Alice's Fact-o-Rama (LLC). The word nerds are particularly fond of that dodge.

The natural history of a common expression takes some predictable turns. First, it springs up in conversation. Years later it is common enough to appear in print. Then it spreads to the general public and becomes a cliché. The general public, eager to fill the collective brain pan with something other than helium or lithium or whatever fills the average skull, will look at the expression and ask "Why?" Why would anyone say "break a leg"?

The urge to answer his own question is irresistible to Average Joe. He applies what passes for logic to the quandary and comes up with the Lincoln-Booth story, since he vaguely remembers from history class that Booth broke his leg after shooting the prez and leaping onto the stage to make his escape. That's the only broken-leg/theater link he can think of-- proof enough that he is indeed a sage and has answered his own question. The explanation makes it into print, we slugs buy it, so it passes for fact. The word nerds even have a name for this process: a folk etymology, a goofy explanation fabricated by us folks after the fact.

Other stories from free-lance thinkers are even more preposterous. How about this one. The pole that holds the stage curtain is called a leg. May you wow the audience and have so many curtain calls that the leg breaks from rising and falling so often. Makes the Lincoln story look half sane.

Actual language researchers offer this explanation. The term came into use with the Yiddish theater as a more or less direct translation of the existing German expression Hals und Bienbruch. In highly superstitious worlds like the theater, it's common to reverse good wishes-- to say something negative so you don't tempt the gods. Culturally, this kind of thinking is universal, not just a German or theater thing. The German expression might have originated with air force pilots, as an alternative to "don't crash and die." That's the best the word nerds can do for you. Don't blame me, blame them. That's my dodge.

The phrase "break a leg" comes from the understudy [in the theater who hopes the star will] "break a leg" so that they may have his/her chance to go on in their place. Simple?

-- Mike Flinn, dot com land

Simple as folk, Mike. Wrong as folk, too. Another widely believed folk etymology. Sorry.

According to my high school history teacher, it's true that [some cultures] wish bad luck on someone in order for them to have good luck…. The Germans even have a word for wishing bad things on someone else, so that you may feel good (schadenfreude). Of course they would come up with the concept of wishing you bad luck with the intent of fooling the karma gods into providing you good luck instead. A friend of mine (of German descent, no less) often wishes people after a party or whatever, "Drive fast. Take chances." It's his way of doing whatever he can to direct good fortune on his guests by reversing whatever bad juju he may personally bring into the equation by wishing them good luck.

-- Paul Willemssen, Bay Park

And perhaps his way of raising the highway death rate among people who don’t get the good luck-bad luck switch.

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Hello there, oh great one:

Where does the phrase "break a leg" come from? One source says it may have come from the whole incident with Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth. The same source says that that is probably not true. What gives?

-- Alison, the net

This is the answer, but don’t believe it. It's a old know-it-all trick that makes you look like you've done your research but doesn't put you in the line of fire if somebody out there has better info. We see it all the time here at Matthew Alice's Fact-o-Rama (LLC). The word nerds are particularly fond of that dodge.

The natural history of a common expression takes some predictable turns. First, it springs up in conversation. Years later it is common enough to appear in print. Then it spreads to the general public and becomes a cliché. The general public, eager to fill the collective brain pan with something other than helium or lithium or whatever fills the average skull, will look at the expression and ask "Why?" Why would anyone say "break a leg"?

The urge to answer his own question is irresistible to Average Joe. He applies what passes for logic to the quandary and comes up with the Lincoln-Booth story, since he vaguely remembers from history class that Booth broke his leg after shooting the prez and leaping onto the stage to make his escape. That's the only broken-leg/theater link he can think of-- proof enough that he is indeed a sage and has answered his own question. The explanation makes it into print, we slugs buy it, so it passes for fact. The word nerds even have a name for this process: a folk etymology, a goofy explanation fabricated by us folks after the fact.

Other stories from free-lance thinkers are even more preposterous. How about this one. The pole that holds the stage curtain is called a leg. May you wow the audience and have so many curtain calls that the leg breaks from rising and falling so often. Makes the Lincoln story look half sane.

Actual language researchers offer this explanation. The term came into use with the Yiddish theater as a more or less direct translation of the existing German expression Hals und Bienbruch. In highly superstitious worlds like the theater, it's common to reverse good wishes-- to say something negative so you don't tempt the gods. Culturally, this kind of thinking is universal, not just a German or theater thing. The German expression might have originated with air force pilots, as an alternative to "don't crash and die." That's the best the word nerds can do for you. Don't blame me, blame them. That's my dodge.

The phrase "break a leg" comes from the understudy [in the theater who hopes the star will] "break a leg" so that they may have his/her chance to go on in their place. Simple?

-- Mike Flinn, dot com land

Simple as folk, Mike. Wrong as folk, too. Another widely believed folk etymology. Sorry.

According to my high school history teacher, it's true that [some cultures] wish bad luck on someone in order for them to have good luck…. The Germans even have a word for wishing bad things on someone else, so that you may feel good (schadenfreude). Of course they would come up with the concept of wishing you bad luck with the intent of fooling the karma gods into providing you good luck instead. A friend of mine (of German descent, no less) often wishes people after a party or whatever, "Drive fast. Take chances." It's his way of doing whatever he can to direct good fortune on his guests by reversing whatever bad juju he may personally bring into the equation by wishing them good luck.

-- Paul Willemssen, Bay Park

And perhaps his way of raising the highway death rate among people who don’t get the good luck-bad luck switch.

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