What does “Break a Leg” mean in British Slang?

One of my friends is a musician and he is performing at his first concert tomorrow! This morning I saw him for a coffee and said:

  • I heard you’re performing at the concert tomorrow, break a leg!

Looking at me with confusion and fear he repeated:

  • Break a leg? Why on earth would I want that.

You may be as confused as he was, so let’s explore this slang phrase….

To clarify I am not wishing him bad luck! The opposite actually. This idiom “to break a leg” has in fact positive connotations, strange as it seems. So where does this strange idiom come from and when do we use it?

Now there are many claimed reasons for the existence of this phrase, usually involving connotations with the theatre.

“Break a leg” earliest written evidence can be found in Bernard Sobel’s 1948 Theatre Handbook in which Sobel explains that actors never said “Good luck,” only “I hope you break a leg.”

It has been suggested that wishing someone to “break a leg” dates back as far as Ancient Greek Theatre. After watching ancient greek audiences would stomp their feet to express their praise for a play, rather like how we clap and applaud now. By wishing an actor to “break a leg”, they hoped that the show would be such a hit that a member of the audience would stomp so hard that they literally may break their own leg, showing that the play was a total success!

However this is only one theory, our second stems from ancient superstition, that when you want something to be a success you must wish for the opposite.

For an actor on opening night it could be argued that the worst thing to happen would be to break a leg, so wishing for it may in fact insure it is avoided!

Nowadays we can use this term not just concerning luck in the theatre but in general, for example:

  • Hope you break a leg at your job interview!


  • Break a leg on the English test today!

So when do you next need to break a leg? A job interview? An English exam? Let us know!

That’s the end of our episode so remember to tune in for our next episode to see what new slang we have in store for you!

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