Why Do We Tell Actors To ‘Break A Leg’?

Just before opening night of Legally Blonde at Bournemouth Pavilion in the UK, actress Rachel Forsdike did something that is said often, but never actually happens on stage…she broke her leg.

I was about to go on for my entrance and, thinking I was going to be late, I went onto the stage in the darkness. I suddenly realized that wasn’t the scene so I quickly turned around to run back off again and ran into one of the flats. It just sent me flying and I fell,” said Forsdike.

It is common to tell actors to “break a leg” before going on stage and apparently, Forsdike is a great listener.

That got me thinking…where did that phrase come from? Why would we wish harm on someone right before their big moment and why do we only do it with actors? Let’s find out in today’s edition of Wonder Why Wednesday…

Why Do We Tell Actors To ‘Break A Leg’?

The simple answer is that it has been long believed that it is bad luck to wish a performer good luck.

Oddly enough, the phrase may have roots with horse racing. In a 1921 article featured in the New Statesman, a British liberal political and cultural magazine, author Robert Wilson Lynd wrote that theatre was the second-most superstitious institution in England, after horse racing. In horse racing, Lynd wrote, to wish a man luck is considered unlucky, so “You should say something insulting such as, ‘May you break your leg!'”

The first mention relating to theatre can be traced to 1939, when Edna Ferber wrote in her book A Peculiar Treasure, the theatre is filled with superstition “…and all the understudies sitting in the back row politely wishing the various principals would break a leg”.

So, we know why the phrase exists, but why “break a leg”, why those exact words? I can understand the superstition of not wanting to say “good luck”, but can’t you just say something less painful like “go get ’em” or even “I hope you do average.” Why wish such a gruesome injury?

That answer remains unknown. Some speculation attribute it to bowing. The act of taking a bow could resemble someone bending or breaking at the knee. Another popular theory comes from a Yiddish phrase “Hatsloche un Broche.” The phrase means “success and blessing” but it when translating to German, it is commonly misspoken as “Hals- und Beinbruch” which means “neck and leg fracture.” Finally, some folks link the line to an 18th-century performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III, by British actor David Garrick. Garrick injured himself during the play, but was so caught up in the performance that he did not realize it.

Whatever the origin, the phrase is not meant to be taken literally…Rachel.

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