Theatre Talk | Break A Leg
The term, of course, is for someone to “do well” or “have a great show” and is typically used before a stage performance or an audition. But I’m sure you’re here for the origin of “break a leg”.
Like most theatre sayings and terms, the origin of “break a leg” is nebulous and disputed. In any event, the term does not appear until the 1920's, in the United States. There are really three theories regarding the origin of this phrase. Let's look at them and let you pick your favorite.
First (and most popular) theory:
Superstition. According to this theory, wishing someone “good luck” would be provoking ghosts or the “evil eye” actually causing bad luck for the actor. By this logic, you would be a wishing good luck for the performer. The first documented instance of someone using the term to wish luck is October 1st, 1921 edition of the New Statesman. Robert Wilson Lynd is talking about it being unlucky in horse racing, of all things, to wish someone luck so “you should say something insulting like, ‘May you break your leg!” He goes on to mention that theater people are the second most superstitious group next to those involved in horse racing. Another of the early documented references of “break a leg”, this time directly referring to theater, was in the 1939 A Peculiar Treasure by Edna Ferber, where she implies a different (and totally mean girl style) motive, “…and all the understudies sitting in the back row politely wishing the various principals would break a leg”. This theory, they say it hoping the principal actors will be injured so the understudies can possibly take the lead. A third possible construction is the German phrase “Hals und beinbruch”. The sentiment is “Happy landings” in English. Pilots use the term, but the literal translation is “breaking all one’s bones”. It is highly possible actors adopted this phrase, just like whistling, as it was just after WWI that the sentiment seems to have gained widespread popularity.