When you tell someone to “break a leg,” you’re not referring to the literal sense, unless you secretly get the utmost satisfaction over watching that person fail. Breaking a leg hurts a lot, which makes it all the more curious as to why this particular phrase became associated with wishing someone good luck.

So, where did this peculiar saying actually come from?

John Wilkes Booth

Many people believe the expression comes from the escape attempt made by John Wilkes Booth, the man who shot and killed Abraham Lincoln. Booth said he broke his leg when he jumped down to the stage after shooting the president in Ford’s Theater. While this may or may not be true, this is not how the term came into common usage. Apologies to all of those disappointed history buffs out here.

Bowing for Applause

The expression ‘break a leg’ is a popular way for actors to wish one another luck. The term was once used as a way to describe the act of bowing (you had to bend, or ‘break’ your knees). So, if you had luck (as an actor), and lots of applause from the audience, you would have to ‘break’ your legs often, which is a very good thing for an applause-starved performer.

Breaking the Curtain “Legs”

Yet another theory holds that the legs being broken are not those of a person, but the rods inside the theater curtain. The rods, which help the curtain rise and fall, are called “legs.” If the actor had a good performance, and rushed out over and over again to bow to the cheers, the curtain legs just might break from constantly being worked in letting the performer back onto the stage.

Surviving the Arena ‘Hunger Games’ Style

The ancient Romans loved their bloodsports and their gladiators. Now, thanks to ‘The Hunger Games,’ so do we. Many of the fights were to the death, but sometimes the participants were allowed to live. If the crowd shouted out, “Break a leg,” it meant they only wanted the opponents to wound one other, and not battle until the bitter end. That’s a cheerful thought, isn’t it?

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