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One of my friend told me to break my legs before entering the examination hall...I was confused with her words! How am I supposed to sit for the exam if i broke my legs? Or maybe is it kind of idioms/phrases?

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9 Answers 9

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The usage of the phrase "break a leg" originates from within the theatrical profession. It was considered that to wish an actor "good luck" for a performance was to "jinx" them and have the opposite effect. As a result it was wished they would "break a leg" and thus cause "good luck".

This is referenced in the movie the Producers where you can hear it used in this song.

The confusion caused by those who do not know this convention is illustrated here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjJRPlY8dUY

So you are not alone in your reaction to this!

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    That is one theory of the origin of the phrase. There are others. While it is indubitably part of theatrical lore, the fact is that nobody knows how the phrase arose or why an apparently malevolent phrase is used to wish a performer luck.
    – Colin Fine
    May 11, 2016 at 14:13
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    The phrase exists in other languages as well, German has "Hals- und Beinbruch", "break your neck and legs". To me, it has been explained as "wish something that's much worse than anything that can possibly happen" so the outcome will always be a good one, in relation. May 11, 2016 at 14:52
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    @ColinFine The phrase was certainly popularized by thespian superstition. Note that theatre people are (or at least were, historically) superstitious in lots of ways, similar to sailors or baseball players.
    – Era
    May 11, 2016 at 16:18
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    There is a more general superstition that calling attention to anything positive jinxes that thing. For example, if you are bowling and get two strikes, it could be considered bad luck to state out loud that you might get a turkey on your next roll. I think this goes along with what @user3321 was saying.
    – Era
    May 11, 2016 at 16:21
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    Another link to the theater is that stages are often fairly high above the ground level, and if there's an orchestra pit or trap door in the stage, there may be a long way to fall if you make misstep in the dark.A leg break is a common worst-case scenario for something going wrong in a show on stage. Dave Grohl of the band The Foo Fighters famously broke a leg falling off stage in June of 2015. So the specific ill wish of breaking a leg (as opposed to cutting a finger, say) was probably chosen for theatrical reasons. May 11, 2016 at 18:33
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I could not find any support for the claim that "break a leg" was once slang for bowing. Presumably it was never particularly widespread. Therefore, and since the phrase seems to be relatively recent, I doubt the theory (on the English Wikipedia) that this is how it arose.

As a native German speaker I find one explanation in the Wikipedia article particularly convincing. (The version at the German Wikipedia seems a bit clearer to me.) It passes through the equally enigmatic German phrase "Hals- und Beinbruch".

It appears that there is a Hebrew expression "hazlacha uwracha" ("הצלחה וברכה"), which turned into Yiddish "hatslokhe un brokhe", meaning "success and blessing". (Apparently the initial u of uwracha was reinterpreted as un, which is German und / English and.) There was a well known connection between German showpeople and the Rotwelsch language, which in turn had a strong Yiddish influence. It is therefore a totally plausible speculation that German showpeople unfamiliar with Hebrew turned the Yiddish phrase into the malapropism "Halsloch und Bruch" ("neck hole and fracture"), which was then replaced by "Hals- und Beinbruch" ("neck and bone fracture" or "neck and leg fracture"), already a frequently used phrase originally referring to actual accidents. (Compare "pots and pans" as a general reference to household goods.)

"Hals- und Beinbruch" first occurs in this new sense in the Google Books corpus in the 1860s. Today the phrase is still employed very commonly when wishing someone success (e.g. in a theatre show, in an exam, or sometimes in business talks - basically anything that resembles a performance), but has almost fallen out of use in its original sense.

Regardless of these details, it appears to be well established and generally accepted that "Hals- und Beinbruch" originates in the Yiddish (and ultimately Hebrew) phrase.

It seems plausible that this phrase crossed the Channel as part of the lively exchange of artists and showpeople between Germany and Britain, with Germans first wishing their English colleagues "leg fracture!" (edited: or "neck and leg break!" - see AlanCarmick's find in a slang dictionary) and then, when this wasn't understood, "break a leg!". "Break a leg" in this sense was first attested around 1920.

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  • This is a very interesting speculative etymology. I'd be tempted to prefer it if there weren't a long tradition and history of bizaare superstition in the theater (e.g., saying "Macbeth" inside a theater is bad luck). Combined with leg (and possibly neck) fractures being a primary health risk of being on stage (especially pre-electricity - electrocution is a serious danger to modern musicians), I can't see this etymology being any more likely than the "anti-good-luck" etymology. Upvoted all the same. May 13, 2016 at 14:35
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    @ToddWilcox I've got some actor friends (in UK and Netherlands) and they religiously avoid naming Macbeth under any circumstances. Even if they laugh about the superstition they still don't call it by name "just in case". It is "The Scottish play" or "Shakespeare's finest" or just "that one". It's like Voldemort in Harry Potter. (In fact I wonder if JKR got the idea of "he that we don't call be name" from this tradition.)
    – Tonny
    May 13, 2016 at 15:05
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    @Tonny Completely off track here, but the idea of names having power and potentially summoning the entity mentioned by name is an old and widely used idea. In fact I'd bet the concept of avoiding naming an evil entity (like the devil) long predates Shakespeare. May 13, 2016 at 15:07
  • Green's Dictionary of Slang (OUP) says to compare the English exclamation to the German one and has this as the earliest reference to break a leg: 1954 News (Frederick, MD) 18 June 4/6: Among the many sayings for ‘good luck,’ you can hear actors whisper ‘neck and leg break’ to each other as the footlights dim and the curtain rises each opening night. Although ‘neck and leg break’ sounds more like a call for a wrestling arena, theatrically it means, ‘good luck’.][my emphases] May 15, 2016 at 18:02
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    @AlanCarmack: Thanks, in my eyes this settles it. "Neck and leg break" only makes sense as a poor but instantly recognisable attempt at translating "Hals- und Beinbruch".
    – user15325
    May 17, 2016 at 9:58
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The other answers seem to define the phrase as "Good luck" but I would classify it a little more specifically as "Have a good performance".

The reason, as noted in the other answers, is commonly associated with theatrics, but the phrase is typically used when someone is about to "actually do something of significance" (hence the performance part).

You wouldn't, for counter-example, wish someone to 'break a leg' when buying a lottery ticket - even though you might wish them luck.

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    It's most definitely a phrase that means good luck. But it's also extremely specific to a performance, due to it's origins in the theatre. You couldn't use this on a phrase to get a lottery ticket because there's no performance. It works in the original example because completeing the examination could be seen as a sort of performance.
    – Wolfkin
    May 12, 2016 at 15:06
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Break a leg! (humorous spoken ) is used to wish someone good luck.

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Italian provides a very different expression but with the same sense of threat and well wishing: "in bocco al lupo" - literally "in the wolf's mouth". See this entry on Italian Stack Exchange where the accepted answer notes the correspondence with the English "break a leg"

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  • This might be useful for helping Italians understand this phrase, but for anyone else (including, probably, the OP), it's completely irrelevant. May 13, 2016 at 8:43
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    Well these superstitions sayings are a common theme in languages. My point is to make the OP aware that not everything you hear in any language (including English) is meant to be taken literally or even makes sense when approached only on a logical level.
    – bvanlew
    May 13, 2016 at 8:59
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    To back up @bvanlew's point about other languages also using "unlucky" outcomes as good luck idioms, in Hungarian you'd say "Egy Kalappal!", which is literally to wish someone "a hat full [of shit]" May 13, 2016 at 12:24
  • Okay that seems like a reason to not learn Hungarian.... But I agree that stating something negative to mean something positive, is what's going on now with the phrase break a leg, no matter its origin. The same with the Italian in the wolf's mouth. May 13, 2016 at 19:40
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    This is a very common linguistic pattern: see this article Good luck takes a reverse which lists at least 5 different languages doing the same thing. I would be interested to know if there has been some serious socio-linguistic research into the phenomenon
    – bvanlew
    May 13, 2016 at 21:02
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In Shakespearean times, if the audience liked a particular actor's performance, they would receive sustained applause at the end the performance, during curtain calls. Actors would place one foot in front of them and bend their back leg when taking a bow, thus 'breaking' a leg. It isn't used as an ill-wish, but as a friendly way to say, have a great performance and hope you receive many 'extra bows' to the audience at the end of the show.

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    This sounds like false etymology. Do you have references?
    – nnnnnn
    May 14, 2016 at 2:37
  • The expression is make a leg, not break it! May 24, 2020 at 19:25
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I always enjoy seeing derivations of phrases when they force some idea to suit the needed outcome. One perennial is tips as T.I.P.S. and also "A camel passing through the eye of a needle".

I could not respond before Adam but yes, a leg is the vertical block on each side of the stage. To break it is to allow oneself to be seen behind it, being where one should not be. This can be easy to do since you cannot look out to the audience to see where the sight lines are without being seen yourself. The lines of sight are not marked on the floor so you need more experience than caution to stay clear of them. Being seen on the side of the stage takes focus from those on the stage and ruins the moment they are working on.

The wish that you "break a leg" is part of the actor's expressions of reverse luck. Wishing someone "luck" is a performer's death sentence requiring several steps to dispel. Wishing that they make a big mistake as in "Break a leg" is the standard warm hearted threat that lets them know you care.

Edit: Further research in the form of dramatic beatings by dramatists and actors have added another source for the expression of "Break a leg". When bowing at the end of a performance one bows repeatedly and deeper each time as long as the applause keeps coming. The proper posture is to cross the ankles and raise the arms. Upon the third and (come on folks, please, the last) time, a great strain is being put to the forward leg. This is called Breaking a leg. To wish this on an actor is to hope they have a good show and enough applause to get away with it.

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I couldn't find an answer here that defined what a leg actually was. In theatrics, a "leg" is one of the curtains on the side of the stage that prevents you from seeing backstage. Also, "break" is a less common term for crossing in front of something. So to "break a leg" is to cross in front of the curtain, which means you're walking onto the stage.

As far as I know, the phrase "break a leg" originated as a phrase given before auditions. In essence, you are wishing that they will be cast into a part so they can make it on stage.

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Break-A-Leg as a good luck wish for actors came into use during Vaudeville days. It was not uncommon for acts to not show up or be unable to perform. The director of the theater would book extra acts as "stand-by's". These acts would not be paid unless they would appear on stage by breaking the sight-line of the side curtains, known as "Legs". Hence "Break A leg" is the good luck wish to appear on stage and get paid for your peformance.

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    Seems to repeat the same basic points as an earlier, down-voted answer. Do you have any citations? Apr 23, 2018 at 17:21

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