Why Do We Say “Pull Your Leg”?

Last month, when I wrote about 5 things we can learn from spellcheck, I said the following:

Spellcheck helps me get the rest of the way, but I still need to do most of the leg work.”

That got me wondering about the origin of that phrase, “leg work.” So, I added it to my list of Wonder Why Wednesday questions. But there was one problem.

No one seems to know where that phrase came from. The best I could do was find that it dates back to the 1890s. No other information was uncovered during a quick Google search.

However, my search led me to another interesting phrase involving legs. And although the history of this phrase is also a little fuzzy, there is enough information to make it the topic of today’s Wonder Why Wednesday.

Why Do We Say “Pulling Your Leg”?

When we “pull someone’s leg” we kid, trick or tease them. Perhaps we are playing a joke, or trying to fool them. Are we actually physically pulling their leg?

No, but maybe we used to.

According to Phrases.org.uk, one popular theory as to how this phrase came about is because in Victorian London, thieves used to pull at people’s legs to trip them. The thought is that once the person was on the ground, they would then be easy to rob.

Although it is a popular theory, there is no evidence to support it. Which leads us to another origin theory, which deals with hangings in 1780s England. Some believe that people were hired to hang on to the victim’s legs to weigh them down and give them a quicker death. Pulling on their legs would create extra weight and speed up the execution.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence of this phrase being used during this time period. Plus, the act doesn’t really fit with meaning of the phrase. Speeding up an execution is hardly a joke or trick.

Even the fact of when the phrase first appeared seems to be inconsistent. Some believe the first time it is found in print is in The diary of James Gallatin, secretary to Albert Gallatin, a great peace maker, 1813-1827, recording an incident that was said to have taken place in 1821:

Mr. Adams is not a man of great force or intelligence, but his own opinion of himself is immense. I really think father, in a covert way, pulls his leg. I know he thinks little of his talents and less of his manners.

However, the diary, which was published in 1914 from notes Gallatin claimed to have been given to him by his grandfather, is now generally accepted to be a fake and the contents invented by Gallatin.

The actual origin of the phrase is closer to 1880 with the earliest example that coming from the Ohio newspaper The Newark Daily Advocate, February, 1883:

It is now the correct thing to say that a man who has been telling you preposterous lies has been “pulling your leg.”

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