Merde to spare.
Dear Word Detective: You’ve addressed the phrase “break a leg” before. But lately, I’ve seen an image being shared quite a lot on social media which explains the phrase as follows: “This theatrical expression originated in the Music Hall/Vaudeville days around the 1800’s [sic]. Producers would have on stand-by as many different acts as possible to fill the bill. It was not viable to pay every act, so if they didn’t actually appear on stage, or get to break the visual plane of the leg line (wing masking), they received no fee. ‘Break a leg’ became a good luck wish that you would be paid for a performance.” This explanation makes more sense than the theory that performers used to break the wooden legs of the stage at the end of a successful performance (which theory you’ve debunked in a previous column) but it still strikes me a specious. It fails to address the German aviators in World War I who wished each other a “broken neck and a broken leg,” or French dancers who wish each other “Merde!” before going onstage. It fails to address the fact that, as you’ve pointed out before, the phrase “break a leg” doesn’t appear in print until 1957. And it fails to recognize that most human cultures through history have boasted strange customs based on the reverse psychology of not wanting to jinx things — and that these sorts of traditions aren’t limited to the performing arts. Can you address “break a leg” again and put this new pseudo-historical explanation to rest? — John Keogh
You’ve done a good job of summarizing the current state of play on “break a leg” in your question, and I must admit that I hadn’t heard the “wing mask” sense of “leg” theory in connection with the phrase. That use of “leg” to mean a long, thin drape on either side of the stage is definitely authentic theater terminology, but that doesn’t, of course, make it the source of the phrase.
It’s very difficult to prove a negative (i.e., that any particular story about “break a leg” isn’t true), but it is possible to make a judgment on what is most likely. In this case, we have an utterly unattested, unverified story that probably rests on nothing more than the coincidence of a bit of stage furnishings being called “legs.” On the other we have a field (the theater) which has always been rife with superstitions (e.g., the prohibition against saying the name of “the Scottish play” (Macbeth) in the backstage “green room”). There is also the ancient fear of tempting fate by wishing someone good luck, as evidenced in the traditions of many cultures for thousands of years. And finally we have the very similar phrase “Hals- und Beinbruch” (“leg and neck break”) from a completely unrelated field (aviation during World War I). (As a side note, although “break a leg” didn’t appear in print until the 1950s, anecdotal evidence indicates it was popular in the theater in the early years of the 20th century.)
Put that all together and I think we can say that “Break a leg” is clearly a form of a very old tactic of wishing someone embarking on a chancy mission “good luck” by seeming to curse them with “bad” luck so as to confuse the demons, deities, etc., in charge. In this case we could justifiably make an “argument from continuity” that if a ritual appears to be highly similar to a family of rituals practiced throughout human history, what we’ve found is simply a variation of that long-established ritual.