A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006. Now a Popeye's fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from January 23, 2012
“Break a leg!” (theatrical saying, meaning “good luck")

Entry in progress—B.P.

“Why do we tell actors to ‘break a leg’?"/"Because every play has a cast” is a joke on the saying.

Wiktionary: break a leg
Unknown; many unproven and widely debated theories exist. One of the most plausible is that it comes from Yiddish הצלחה און ברכה (hatsloche un broche) through the heavy Yiddish influence in the American theater, from German Hals- und Beinbruch (“neck and leg break”), perhaps a corruption of the Hebrew הַצְלָחָה וּבְרָכָה (hatslachá uvrachá, “success and blessing”).
break a leg
(imperative only)
1.(idiomatic) To perform well in a theatrical production or comparable endeavor.

Wikipedia: Break a leg
“Break a leg” is a well-known idiom in theatre which means “good luck.” It is typically said to actors and musicians before they go on stage to perform. The origin of the phrase is obscure.

The expression reflects a theatrical superstition in which wishing a person “good luck” is considered bad luck. The expression is sometimes used outside the theatre as superstitions and customs travel through other professions and then into common use. Among professional dancers, the phrase “break a leg” is replaced with “merde”.

The earliest known example in print is from Edna Ferber’s 1939 A Peculiar Treasure in which she writes about the fascination of the theater, “...and all the understudies sitting in the back row politely wishing the various principals would break a leg”. In Bernard Sobel’s 1948 The Theatre Handbook and Digest of Plays, he writes about theatrical superstitions: “...before a performance actors never wish each other good luck, but say ‘I hope you break a leg.’” There is anecdotal evidence from theatrical memoirs and personal letters as early as the 1920s.

There are several theories behind the origin of the phrase. Few are supported by contemporary writings. The theories listed below are some of the more popular explanations.

Opposite meaning
People in theatre consider it bad luck to wish an actor good luck, so instead they wish the opposite, by saying “break a leg!”.

On October 1, 1921 in the New Statesman, a British liberal political and cultural magazine, an article was published, “A Defence of Superstition”, written by urbane Irish nationalist Robert Wilson Lynd. Lynd said that the theatre was the second-most superstitious institution in England, after horse racing. In horse racing, Lynd asserted, to wish a man luck is considered unlucky, so “You should say something insulting such as, ‘May you break your leg!’” Lynd did not attribute the phrase in any way to theatre people, though he was familiar with many of them.

Google Books
A Peculiar Treasure:
An Autobiography

By Edna Ferber
New York, NY: Doran & Company
Pg. 354:
And when that grisly night of dress rehearsal finally comes round, and strange figures enter the dim auditorium and grope for seats and whisper and mumble and creep about and you make out the dressmaker and the dressmaker’s assistant and the girl from Berdorfs (the star’s clothes) and the girl from Saks’ (the ingenue’s) and the friend of management, and somebody’s uncle, and all the understudies sitting in the back row politely wishing the various principals would break a leg—it is then that everything goes suddenly completely and inextricably wrong and you realize that tomorrow night is just twenty-four hours away.

Google Books
The Scene Is Changed
By Ashley Dukes
London: Macmillan
Pg. 44:
It is so important that in Middle Europe the actual wishing of luck is thought unlucky, and an actor or playwright is wished Hals-und-Beinbruch instead. This means “broken neck and legs to you”, and it serves just as well.

Google Books
The Theatre Handbook and Digest of Plays
Edited by Bernard Sobel
New York, NY: Crown Publishers
Pg. 722:
Other superstitions include: it is bad luck to whistle in a dressing room; wearing old shoes that were associated with a hit is good luck; before a performance actors never wish each other good luck, but say “I hope you break a leg”; ...

25 August 1951, Morning Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA), “The Lyons Den” by Leonard Lyons, pg. 4A, col. 2:
Tradition: The next time I saw Miss Truman (Margaret Truman—ed.) on a platform was at the Runyon fund’s special performance of “Guys & Dolls,” where she served as the fund’s hostess for the evening. I, as vice-president of the fund, was to introduce her from the stage. We stood in the wings at the 46th st. theater, and when my cue came and I started to walk onstage, I heard her call to me: “Break a leg”...I wheeled, in disbelief at what I’d heard, and she repeated: “Break a leg”...She later explained this superstitution (sic) among concert artists—that it really means good luck.

Google Books
The Playmakers
By Stuart W. Little and Arthur Cantor
New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Pg. 90:
Implicit in the relationship of actor and audience are violence and hostility: the cliche phrases associated with this relationship abound in references to destruction, death, and sexual conquest.  ”Merde“ and “Break a leg"* are common actor’s telegrams. The victory shouts of actors after triumphant performances are filled with violent images:

“I killed them tonight.”
“We mowed ‘em down.”
“I laid them in the aisles.”

Conversely, if the show goes poorly, an actor will say, “We died out there tonight” or “We bombed” or “It just laid there.”
*Originally, Hals und Beinbruchi, from the German.

7 April 1971, Rockford (IL) Register-Republic, “Big names cheer Marty Allen debut” by Earl Wilson, pg. 22B, col. 3:
NEW YORK—Wild-haired “Hello Dere” comedian Marty Allen arrived at the Copacabana with a handsome new boy singer named Kevin James—and got a laugh when he said he had a telegram from his former partner Steve Rossi:

“There’s a show business expression: ‘May you break a leg.’ May I wish you better luck than that? May you broke both legs.”

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityMusic/Dance/Theatre/Film/Circus • Monday, January 23, 2012 • Permalink