Nobody knows exactly when or how the saying “break a leg” came about, but there are a few leading theories. First, involving the 20th century American theater, is an evolution of the German saying “Hals-und Beinbruch,” translated as “neck and leg break,” which Germans also use as a way to wish someone good fortune, or at the very least, reprieve from any unfortunate accidents. “Hals-und Beinbruch” may itself be rooted in the Hebrew blessing “hatzlakha u-brakha.” Unlike the paradoxical nature of “break a leg,” “hatzlakha u-brakha” means “success and blessing,” according to Reader’s Digest. But the two phrases do sound somewhat similar in translation, and “hatzlakha u-brakha” may have become “Hals-und Beinbruch” for humorous effect.

Also plausible? Wishing someone well in their performance by saying “break a leg” might also extend all the way back to the days of William Shakespeare and the Elizabethan theater, according to Transcendence Theatre. Back then, audiences didn’t clap their hands, but instead, stomped the legs of their chairs as a way to show appreciation to a performer. Perform well enough, and an audience may just be inspired to break a chair leg in response.

Also notable among many other theories related to the origins of the saying is that in Shakespeare’s day, “break a leg” also simply meant to take a bow. In that light, it makes perfect sense to tell someone to break a leg, or that we hope their performance goes well enough they’ll be called on for an encore.

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