The term, of course, means Бdo wellБ or Бhave a great showБ and is typically used before a stage performance, a show, or an audition. (I have never heard it used before filming a movie on any of the movies IБve been involved with, but I guess it can be used in that sense too). б But IБm sure youБre more interested in the origin of Бbreak a legБ. Like many popular sayings and terms, the origin of Бbreak a legБ is nebulous and disputed. б The term Бbreak a legБ was used originally, many say, to discourage evil spirits from deliberately causing oneБs performance to suffer. According to this theory, wishing someone Бgood luckБ would be invoking the Бevil eyeБ. So Бgood luckБ would actually cause bad luck for the actor. Thus, Бbreak a legБ, by this logic, would be a wish for good luck. This is in line with the first documented instance of someone saying Бbreak a legБ in terms of wishing them luck. In an October 1, 1921 edition of the
New Statesman, Robert Wilson Lynd is talking about it being unlucky in horse racing to wish someone luck so Бyou should say something insulting such as, БMay you break your leg! Бб He also mentions that theater people are the second most superstitious group next to those involved in horse racing. Another of the early documented references of Бbreak a legБ, this time directly referring to theater, was in the 1939 A Peculiar Treasure by Edna Ferber, where she implies a different motive, ББand all the understudies sitting in the back row politely wishing the various principals would break a legБ. б Thus, they say it hoping the principal actors will break their leg so the understudies can possibly take the lead.
Another possible construction is the German phrase БHals und beinbruchБ. The sentiment here is БHappy landingsБ in English. Both English and German pilots use the term, but the literal translation is Бbreaking all oneБs bonesБ. It is possible actors adopted this phrase, as it was just after WWI that the Бbreak a legБ sentiment seems to have gained widespread popularity. The term Бbreak a legБ may be traced back to the Elizabethan language. To Бbreak a legБ, in ShakespeareБs time, meant, literally, to bow- by bending at the knee. Since a successful actor would Бbreak a legБ onstage and receive applause, the phrase would, in effect, be a wish for good luck. However, in the 16th century Бbreak a legБ also meant to give birth to an illegitimate child, which is hard to connect to the theatrical world. Others trace Бbreak a legБ to the tradition of audiences in Ancient Greece. Instead of applauding actors, audiences would stomp their feet.
Stomping to the point of actually breaking a leg is unlikely- but still, the phrase may be figurative and not literal. An interesting historical theory attributes Бbreak a legБ to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This theory traces the term to the great 19th century actor, John Wilkes Booth, who, of course, shot President Lincoln at FordБs Theater in 1865. After Booth shot the President, he jumped from LincolnБs upper box seat onto the stage, where he literally Бbroke his legБ. (Some also present this as a possibly origin of the popular phrase comedians and comics use for a successful show: БI killed them. Б / БI killed the audience. Б) Landing a role in show business is called Бgetting a breakБ and being newly successful is called Бbreaking into the businessБ. These also may be where the Бbreak a legБ term evolves from. So as you can see here, the exact origin of Бbreak a legБ for wishing someone luck is murky at best. б But whatever first spawned the exact phrase, it seems plausible enough that it either grew in popularity from the idea of wishing bad luck on someone so that theyБll in turn be given good luck, as the early documented references of the phrase imply, or in sarcastically wishing them bad luck so that the understudy could perhaps take over the role of one of the principals if the principal actually broke their leg.
Ballet dancers have their own version of Бbreak a legБ which connects to the superstitious concept of not wishing other dancers Бgood luckБ. They will say БMerde! Б This translates in English to a well-known four-letter word that describes human waste. This term seems more expressive of not evoking ill or bad luck, but as well may imply feelings related to stage fright or anxiety before a performance. According to, the term: reflects a theatrical superstition in which wishing a person \”good luck\” is considered bad luck. The expression is sometimes used outside the theatre as superstitions and customs travel through other professions and then into common use. Among professional dancers, the phrase \”break a leg\” is replaced with \”merde\”. The article goes on to mention several theories about the actual origins of this expression. The one that is often mentioned (as far as I have heard), is called the Opposite Meaning theory. It says, People in theatre consider it bad luck to wish an actor good luck, so instead they wish the opposite, by saying \”break a leg! \”. In the time of Ancient Greece, people didn\’t applaud. Instead, they stomped for their appreciation and if they stomped long enough, they would break a leg. Or, some would have it that the term originated during Elizabethan times when, instead of applause the audience would bang their chairs on the groundБand if they liked it enough, the leg of the chair would break.  Still another claims that the origins are, in fact, Yiddish: Some etymologists believe it to be an adaptation from the Yiddish translation into German.
The phrase \”Hatsloche un Broche\” (ввввв ввв ввЕвв) (\”success and blessing\”) had been calqued from the German phrase \”Hals- und Beinbruch\” (\”neck and leg fracture\”), because of near similar pronunciation. ( hat tip to Unreason ) has even more theories on how the term came to be. They note that: \’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. So the theories they offer stem from this. For example, the following things could be related to \”breaking a leg\”: 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\’. Note that still, nobody knows the exact origin of the phrase, but some are more plausible than others.