Oh, look! TLC is showing “Lifestyles of the Easily-Amused.”
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the phrase “Pulling my leg”? — Fred Baer.
Hello, old friend, it’s good to see you again. Not you, Fred. I mean your question. We go way back. This was one of the first questions I answered when I started writing this column, right after Bill Clinton was elected the first time. Plus ça change, eh? Whatevuh. And here we are in another election year. Boy howdy, this is exciting. Almost makes me sorry I shot my TV, for which I blame Honey Boo Boo. Seriously, you reach a point when you realize the only thing you can bear to watch is reruns of House Hunters even though you know the whole thing is pure lies. What else is there? American Hoggers? Shipping Wars? Newsroom? Please.
Onward. “Pulling someone’s leg” is a venerable idiom meaning to tell someone a tall tale as a prank or gentle hoax, or otherwise to “put one over” on someone as a good-natured joke (“The Chinese giant once told me he had half a dozen wives at home, but I think he was pulling my leg,” 1883). The phrase first appeared in print in the early 19th century (“I really think Father, in a covert way, really pulls his leg. I know he thinks little of his talent and less of his manners,” 1821), but it’s unclear whether it originated in Britain or the US. “To pull someone’s leg” has also been used, since the 1880s, to mean “to ask a person for something, especially money” (“He pulled Pickles’ leg ‘Till his victim did beg But … he needed the money,” 1908). But this usage never attained the near-universal popularity of the “pull a friendly hoax” sense.
The popularity of “pull one’s leg” is indeed truly remarkable; almost everyone fluent in English, it seems, knows and understands the phrase. Unfortunately (here it comes), no one has even a serious clue as to where it came from. There are theories, of course, but they range from the unlikely to the uninspiring. At the unlikely end of the spectrum, one theory traces the phrase to public hangings “way back when.” The friends of the condemned, it is said, would pull on his legs to speed the process and expedite a painless demise. Not only is there no historical record of this practice, but to say that it does not “fit” with subsequent use of the phrase to mean “friendly joke” is a profound understatement.
A more plausible theory suggests that the phrase refers to tripping another person either literally, as a physical joke, or metaphorically, by making the victim look gullible and silly. This theory matches the sense of the phrase and may actually be true, but it raises the question of why the leg of the victim is said to be “pulled.”
Another theory along the same lines traces the phrase to street thieves tripping their victims in order to temporarily incapacitate them. This theory shares the weaknesses of the previous one and adds a complete mismatch to the “joke” sense of the phrase.
So the origin and logic of “pulling someone’s leg” is, and at this point may well remain, a mystery. The good news is that the Brits have developed a come-back useful for those times when you’re pretty sure that someone is “pulling your leg.” The rejoinder “Pull the other one,” often in the elaborated form “Pull the other one, it’s got bells on it,” first showed up in print in 1966. It’s a snappy way to say, “I know you’re putting me on and I’m not fooled, so try again” (“‘Believe it or not, neither Farrell nor I has the slightest interest in the gold…’ ‘Pull the other one!’ said Nelson derisively,” 1973).