Mystery shrouds origins of popular term

Before the curtain goes up on a play, you will often overhear actors being greeted with “Break a leg!” Did you ever wonder where this superstitious theatrical phrase might have come from? There are several schools of thought as to its derivation, but it is all conjecture, because we are unsure of its etymology.

One possibility is that during ancient times, an audience didn’t applaud; they stomped. If they stomped in appreciation long enough, they would eventually break their leg — sounds a little far-fetched.

Another school of thought has this term originating in 1865, at the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, when the actor and assassin, John Wilkes Booth, jumped onto the stage from the balcony of Ford’s Theatre after the murder and broke his leg.

This meant, tongue-in-cheek, that you should have better luck than that. My intuition tells me that this is not where the term originated, either.

Some think the term’s use began during the Middle Ages, when people believed more in the activities of gremlins, mischievous spirits and ghosts. If these troublesome spirits overheard you ask for something you desired, they would instead wreak havoc, trying to make the opposite happen.

So, if you were wishing that someone would “Break a leg,” then they would have a smooth performance on stage and not be interfered with by these mischievous spirits. This is kind of a reverse-psychology technique, but my guess is that this was not the origin.

Another camp believes that the term originated when newer actors performed in a role that was typecast by a more experienced actor. The newer actor would be told to “Break a legend,” and eventually this was shortened to “Break a leg.” That explanation seems even more remote.

Still others think that it evolved because understudies desiring an opportunity to perform would say “Break a leg,” to the primary performers as a kind of joke. Eventually the cast felt that if this wasn’t said that it would bring bad luck to the performance. This is surely a possible derivation.

The best explanation I’ve heard comes from being a good luck wish. The wish implies that the performance should be so successful that the actors would need to bow so deeply in gratitude to the applause of the audience that they would be bending at the knee of one leg, i.e., “breaking at the leg,” in Old English. This could have been a custom as early as the era of William Shakespeare, and this explanation seems to be the most likely one to have had continuity.

To me, it is far more of a possibility than any of the others, but who really knows for sure? Anyway, we are all actors on the world stage, so my wish to you is, “Break a leg!”

Michael Hickey is a local writer and poet who lives in Pelican Bay and Swampscott, Mass. His book, “Get Wisdom,” is published by Xlibris Div. Random House Publishing and is available at 1-888-795-4274 Ext. 822, at, or your local bookstore. E-mail Mike Hickey at

Brand New Day

By Michael Hickey

Curtain up,

performance begins,

Break a leg,

Losers don’t win.

Pick yourself up,

Dust yourself off,

Back in the fray,

Cry; laugh,

It’s a brand new day.

Today is a choice,

Joy mixing tears,

Hearing his voice,

Banishing fears.

Sing; be glad,

Best audience yet,

Don’t act sad,

Get ready, get set,


© 2009 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.