Break a Leg

Through a chain of coincidences not worth mentioning I came across the wikipedia page for the phrase break a leg. It’s got a little actual history, which is interesting. The phrase (used among theater people to wish each other good luck) seems to be fairly recent:

Urbane Irish nationalist Robert Wilson Lynd published an article, “A Defence of Superstition”, in the 1 October 1921 edition of the New Statesman, a British liberal political and cultural magazine. Lynd regarded the theatre as the second-most superstitious institution in England, after horse racing. In horse racing, Lynd asserted, to wish a man luck is considered unlucky, so “You should say something insulting such as, ‘May you break your leg!'”[ Lynd did not attribute the phrase in any way to theatre people, though he was familiar with many of them and frequently mingled with actors backstage. Break a leg is most commonly used to wish an actor in audition to be part of the cast; hence the term “break a leg”.
The earliest known example in print is from Edna Ferber‘s 1939 A Peculiar Treasure in which she writes about the fascination of the theater, “…and all the understudies sitting in the back row politely wishing the various principals would break a leg”.[7] In Bernard Sobel‘s 1948 The Theatre Handbook and Digest of Plays, he writes about theatrical superstitions: “…before a performance actors never wish each other good luck, but say ‘I hope you break a leg.'” There is anecdotal evidence from theatrical memoirs and personal letters as early as the 1920s.

The reason I’m writing about it, though, is that it describes a collection of purported origin stories of the sort that, twenty years ago, used to go around as email forwards. They include:

  • There was a line on the stage, called “the leg”, past which one was visible, and far more actors would show up than would perform and were only paid if they performed. Thus “break the leg” was a wish that they’d get paid.
  • Bowing “broke the leg” in the sense of breaking the line of the leg, and was a wish that the audience would applaud.
  • The mechanical crank for the curtain was called “the leg” and it was a wish that they’d be called back by applause so much the crank would break.
  • In Greek times people stomped their feet instead of clapping and the idea was to wish a performance so good that members of the audience would break their legs stomping so hard.
  • Some ridiculous thing about a yiddish phrase being take to be a german phrase that doesn’t sound all that close but means “neck and leg fracture”, which was used by German WWI pilots to each other.
  • John Wilks Booth broke his leg leaping to the stage in Ford’s Theater after killing Abraham Lincoln, which was his most memorable performance.
  • 18th Century British actor David Garrick became so engrossed in his role as Richard III that he didn’t notice his leg fracture.

They all have a sort of historical plausibility, though my experience of these things is if you try to track them down they often turn out to simply be false. The thing about these explanations I find fascinating is how unpoetic they all are.  Wishing someone, not success, but failure, is obviously a recognition of how often our wishes don’t come true and thus is trying to trick fate by wishing for the opposite of what’s hoped for. School children of my day might respond to someone prophesying their success by saying, “don’t jinx me”, as if the expectation of success would produce failure.

There’s a psychological component behind this, of course; overconfidence tends to lead to under-performance. But much more significant, I think, is the universal human fear of Nemesis. She was the Greek god whose task it was to ensure that mortals who thought too much of themselves were brought low.

All of the explanations proffered on the wikipedia page have in common that they are some form of positive wish. That is, they explain the phrase away. They purport to show that the phrase is not in fact a negative one but a positive one.

I can’t help but see a curious similarity here to internet atheism. There seems to be the appeal of being in the club of those in the know—to be distinguished as superior from the unwashed masses. There is also the appeal of taking a phrase which required a poetic understanding and turning it into something prosaic and insignificant. It makes the world at once easy to understand and not worth understanding.

Where it really fails, of course, is that it’s more significant to understand why a thing has persisted than it is to know where it started. There are phrases which had the origin in misunderstanding or mispronouncing a different phrase, but most of these die out, just as most of everything dies out. When things last, it’s because they tap into something lasting. And that’s the part that’s worth knowing.

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