Where Did the Phrase “Break a Leg” Come From?

When we say "break a leg," we don't actually want people to break their legs. So, why do we say this interesting phrase in the first place?

Have you ever stopped to think about the common phrases we use in everyday conversation? People say things like “knock on wood“, “quit cold turkey“, “cat’s out of the bag“, “take it with a grain of salt“, and “spill the beans” all the time, along with this common idiom: “break a leg.” Why exactly do we say it, though, and where did the phrase even come from? Read on to get the fascinating details, from what it means to its superstitious roots.

“Break a leg” meaning

“Break a leg” is a phrase that means “good luck.” It’s typically said to actors before they go on stage for a performance, particularly on opening night. It’s not limited to performers, though; you can say this phrase to anyone.

Here are some examples of how to use it in a sentence:

  • “I can’t wait to see you perform tonight—break a leg!”
  • “I hear you have a big presentation at work tomorrow—break a leg.”

Another idiom with an interesting meaning: Dime a dozen. You have to go back centuries to understand what it means!

“Break a leg” origin

The phrase is believed to be rooted in the theatre community, which is known to be a bit superstitious. Performers believed saying “good luck” would actually bring bad luck on stage, so they’d tell one another to “break a leg” instead. That way, the opposite would happen. Instead of breaking a leg, the performer would put on a flawless performance. It’s believed to have originated in the American theatre scene in the early 20th century. Some believe it was adapted from the German saying “Hals-und Beinbruch,which means “neck and leg break.”  That phrase may also be derived from the Hebrew blessing “hatzlakha u-brakha,” which means “success and blessing.”

Saying “good luck” isn’t the only superstition in the theatre. Other common superstitions include:

  • Whistling in the theatre bringing bad luck
  • Saying “Macbeth” in the theatre will curse the production
  • The last person in the theatre leaving the “ghost light” in the middle of the stage on
  • Synonyms for “break a leg”

Common synonyms for this idiom include:

  • Good luck
  • Best of luck
  • Godspeed
  • All the best
  • Blow them away

Now you know the interesting history behind this common idiom—if you’re explaining it to someone else, break a leg! And don’t forget to read up on the interesting reason why we say “no worries” and “piqued my interest.”


Kelly Kuehn
Kelly Kuehn is a former editor for Reader’s Digest who covered entertainment, trivia and history. When she’s not working you can find her watching the latest and greatest movies, listening to a true-crime podcast (or two), blasting ‘90s music and hiking with her dog, Ryker, throughout the Finger Lakes.