Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Melinda from Hickory, NC. Melinda Wonders, “Why Do People Say "Break A Leg" Before Shows?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Melinda!
Badger: Hey guys! What are you doing? What's up with the funny outfits?
Chipmunk: Yeah! I'm Romeo and Squirrel is Juliet. Do you want to watch us?
Squirrel: Wait a second…I thought I was Romeo and you were Juliet!
Chipmunk: I can't be Juliet! I already memorized all of Romeo's lines!
Badger: I'd love to stay and watch, but I'm late for a meeting. Break a leg!
Squirrel: Say what?
Chipmunk: Why would he say such a thing? That's awful!
We didn't stick around to see if Squirrel and Chipmunk figured out their roles. We realized, though, that they must not have much experience with theater, because neither of them understood Badger was wishing them luck when he told them to "break a leg."
If you've ever been part of a school play, then you've probably heard people tell performers, especially on opening night, to "break a leg." It's a common phrase used to wish performers good luck before a performance. But how did such an odd expression come to mean "good luck" in the context of the theater?
The most common and perhaps most likely explanation is that the phrase evolved out of the fact that many actors held a superstitious belief that wishing someone good luck would actually bring bad luck during the performance.
To counteract the superstition, they would instead tell them to break a leg, which would be the exact opposite of good luck. But why break a leg and not, for example, break an arm or fall off the stage?
Some experts believe "break a leg" was an old English phrase that referred to the fact that you bend your knee when you take a bow or curtsy in response to applause. Moreover, the side curtains in theaters are sometimes called "legs," so stepping through the curtains to receive applause at the end of a performance could be seen as breaking a leg.
In this way, the phrase "break a leg" would sound bad — like the opposite of good luck — while also having a different implied meaning. It would show you were wishing them well by hoping that their performance would go so well that they would bow at the end in response to the audience's applause.
Others argue that "break a leg" may have evolved from an inside joke among theater actors. They claim understudies or apprentice actors would jokingly tell the star performers to break a leg, which would in turn give them a chance to perform in their absence.
Another popular theory is that the phrase arose from the circumstances of Abraham Lincoln's assassination. His killer, John Wilkes Booth, was an actor who happened to break his leg when he jumped from Lincoln's box to the stage after shooting him. However, most experts don't believe this explanation since the phrase didn't become popular until long after Lincoln's death.
There are many other theories out there, some quite far-fetched and others potentially plausible. We will likely never know how "break a leg" came to mean "good luck" in the context of the theater, but we do know the phrase is popular and here to stay!