Informant: “The ‘break a leg’ legend. Do you know that story? It has nothing to do with fracturing any of the major leg bones. That in a different usage of the language ‘to break a leg’ is ‘to bend a leg’. So that gives us two possible origins of why when you want ‘to break a leg’ that the old way of bowing, is that you bend the back leg and then take the bow. So that ‘to break a leg” means to get a big bow at the end of the show. And other one is a similar thing on bending, that if coins were tossed on the stage at the end of the show, you would have to then bend down, thus breaking the straight line of the leg in order to pick up the coins that were being tossed on stage.”
The superstition of why you say “break a leg” to an actor is because saying “good luck” brings you bad luck. There are many different origins of why you would say “break a leg” to an actor, and the phrase also changes based on what country you are in. For example, in France you would say “Merde” which is French for ‘shit’. The idea of this is that in wishing for something bad to happen such as the actor breaking their leg, the opposite will take place.
There are may theories behind where this idiom came from, such as the idea that my informant mentioned which suggests that to “break a leg” is a different usage of language that also means ‘to bend a leg’. I like this theory more than the other origin theories that I have seen in my research, such as the idea that to “break a leg” comes from the production of Shakespheare’s Richard III where actor David Garrick became so consumed with his role as Richard III that he did not realize his leg was broken during the performance. This legend is popular because it promotes the idea of being so into your performance as an actor that everything else is forgotten, and all that exists is the part you are playing in the world of the play. This is the kind of mind set that all actors should aspire to accomplish, so it is no wonder that this story has achieved such a high level of fascination in the imagination of people who work in theater, especially actors.
The reason why I like this theory more than the other theories I have seen in my research is that it is very logical. I have always thought that it is interesting that we say “break a leg” to an actor before they perform, but we do not say this to a designer or crew member before they do their job. If this legend is the real reason behind why we say “break a leg”, than the reasoning behind not wishing a crew member to “break a leg” makes sense because only actors have historically been the ones that bend their legs to either bow or pick up the coins that had been thrown on stage for a job well done.
My informant was born in 1949, Connecticut. He works as a costume designer in the entertainment industry occasionally, and serves as the head of the USC costume shop in addition to being a faculty member for the USC School of Dramatic Arts. He has more than 40 years of experience in the theater.