BREAK A LEG—some proposed meanings of this theatrical expression of
My assistant, Rachel Brenna, interviewed the cast about their knowledge
of the origins of this expression-Break a Leg.
Here are some theories from Wikipedia:
In Britain, the most common idea about the origin of the expression comes from tradition. Historians know from the time of King James I and Shakespeare’s King’s Men that actors would, on occasion, receive tips on top of their salaries. Rather than receiving tips directly from the company or theatre, tipping was left to the audience . During the final bows or curtain call, audiences would throw money, usually coins, onto the stage depending on how well they enjoyed the performance. In some bad performances they would throw rotten vegetables, but in the good cases, money. Actors would then ‘take a knee’, effectively breaking their leg line, on stage and pick up the money. As a result, when a person wishes someone to ‘break a leg’ it refers to wishing them success in their performance so in the end they would have to kneel down and collect a welcoming tip. Theatre evolved and the tradition of tipping changed to one of throwing flowers on stage, as well as presenting flowers.
This theory is thought to be an extension of the Traditional Theory. For the curtain call, when actors bow or curtsy, they place one foot behind the other and bend at the knee, ‘breaking’ the line of the leg. In theatre, pleased audiences may applaud in which time encore bows sometimes occur. On Broadway this is considered the highest compliment to an actor.
There are many non-literal references this expression could be referring to.
* In traditional curtains, the legs of the curtain were constructed from long wooden rods. In the case of many encores, curtains would be lifted and dropped numerous times causing them to ‘break’.
* Another popular alternative theory concerning the physical “legs”, or side curtains, of the theatre proposes that the company of actors should rush onstage through the curtains to take a considerable amount of bows, thus “breaking a leg (side curtain)” in the process.
* The term ‘break a leg’ may be an abbreviation for the phrase ‘break a legend’ which roughly means ‘go get yourself out there’ or related to meaning ‘break’ (example this is your big break).
* The term ‘break a leg’ may also be related to the members of a play / performance since they are known as the ‘cast’.
Here are some possible interpretations from my wordsmith friend, Robin Morgan, who always checks out the Oxford English Dictionary, which she calls “Oz Himself on etymology.”
“The word ‘break’ has many meanings – the OED lists 57 distinct uses of it as a verb alone. That gives considerable scope for speculation over what is meant by the phrase “break a leg.” The most common interpretation of ‘break’ in this context is, ‘to deviate from a straight line’, as in the cricketing term, ‘off break’. That is, unstraighten the leg by bending at the knee, by bowing or curtseying.
‘Break a leg’ also means, ‘make a strenuous effort’. There are many references to the phrase used that way, which pre-date the earliest theatrical good luck charm meaning. For example, from The Hammond Times, Indiana, 1942:
“Whatever the army or navy want, the Continental Roll [and Steel Foundry] will turn out … Or break a leg trying.”
From the Evening State Journal, Nebraska, 1937:
“With all the break-a-leg dancing there are many who still warm to graceful soft shoe stepping.”
So, it is possible that when an actor is told to ‘break a leg’, he/she may just be being exhorted to put on an energetic, exciting performance.
There are many other possible derivations in circulation, mostly referring to the ‘good luck’ message. In diminishing order of plausibility, ‘break a leg’ these are:
* Put on a performance good enough that you will have to bend your knee in a bow or curtsey to acknowledge the applause.
* Impress the audience so much that you will need to bend down to pick up the coins they throw onto the stage.
* Pass out onto the stage to receive a curtain call (the side curtains on a stage are known as legs).
* Go on stage and have your ‘big break’.
* Evoke the powers of the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt, who had one leg.
* A reference to John Wilkes Booth, who broke his leg when jumping on stage, attempting to flee after shooting President Lincoln.
It is tempting to believe the phrase to be ancient and to imagine it whispered to Tudor minstrels as they went on stage at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. There was an earlier meaning of ‘break a leg’ of that vintage (1670), which was ‘to give birth to a bastard’. This is now entirely out of use and is not related to the theatrical version. The current meaning is nothing like as old. The term originates in the American theatre in the 20th century and all the earliest references to its use are from US sources. The earliest citation we can find in print is from as late as 1948, from an edition of the US newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, in May that year. This is from their ‘Ask The Gazette’ column:
Q. What are some of the well-known superstitions of the theatre?
A. Superstitions of the stage are numerous and many are particular to individual actors and actresses. That it is bad luck to whistle in a dressing room is a widely accepted belief. Another is that one actor should not wish another good luck before a performance but say instead ‘I hope you break a leg.’
That pretty much rules out the Sarah Bernhardt and John Wilkes Booth interpretations which, as well as being rather fanciful, date from too far before any printed version.”
What seems to make the most sense to you, my blog friends?
See you next time.