Break A Leg - Good Luck

It is considered very unlucky to wish someone good luck in the theatre.  There are a number of ways of wishing someone good luck without saying “Good luck”, the most common being “Break a leg”. Although one of the most well-known theatre traditions, it does not appear to have existed in English speaking theatre until the 1920s and its origins are obscure.  There are countless theories of the beginnings of “break a leg”, but no definitive answer as to where it all started.

The most likely theory is that it was assumed wishing someone good luck would jinx them.  Therefore it would be luckier to wish something bad upon the performer. Breaking a leg during a performance would be extremely unlucky.  There may or may not have been a number of other bad wishes used, but “break a leg” seems to be the one that has stuck.

© Senkron |

Another theory is that breaking a leg refers to how successful the performance will be.  When an actor bows at the end of the show, the line of the leg is broken, so wishing someone “break a leg” means you want their performance to be so good that they have to come on to take a bow. A similar theory is that the leg refers not to a human leg, but the long column style cloths hung at the side of the stage known as legs.  You are wishing that the actors will have to rush back on for so many curtain calls that they are at risk of breaking the legs.  

There are also sources that suggest the leg refers to the audience’s legs.  In ancient Greece the audience did not applaud.  They would stamp their feet on the ground to show their appreciation and if the performance was particularly good they might stamp so hard they would break a leg.  Also, Elizabethan audiences were known to bang their chairs on the ground instead of clapping and might break a chair leg. However, as the term “break a leg” is not thought to have been around before the 1920s, these theories are unlikely to be the true source.

A slightly more plausible theory is that “break a leg” is a mistranslation of a Yiddish saying for “Good Luck”.  “Hatsloche un Broche” meaning “success and blessing” sounds a bit like the German phrase “Hals- und Beinbruch” which means “neck and leg fracture”. There are contemporary accounts of World War 1 German Air Force pilots using this phrase to wish each other luck before a flight.


Some theatre disciplines have their own variations on the bad-luck-to-say-good-luck theory. In opera it is traditional to say “Toi Toi Toi” instead of good luck and some dancers simply say “Merde”!

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