Theatre traditions


Discovering the meaning of:

"Break a leg"

@Stéphane Kerrad

The theatre has many extraordinary uses and expressions of which the origin seems undetermined. Once a month we will dive in to the history of some famous theatre mysteries and find the explanation. This month we will search for the origin of a theatre terminology that knows many forms in different languages: "Break a Leg. " Although the origin of the term isn't very clear, the use of it has been reported to be used first around the 1930s in the United States. There the term has been documented but without any theatrical associations. It was later used to overcome an old superstition where it is believed that wishing someone good luck before going on stage leads to bad luck. Although the precise origin hasn't been determined, it is believed that "break a leg" originates from a Yiddish term: hatsloche un broche - meaning success and blessing. When translated to German it reads: Hals- und Beinbruch which literally means neck- and leg(bone) break. In many cultures and languages the translation of this German sentance has been used to wish people luck for a long time. Besides "break a leg", there are also other ways to wish an actor good luck on stage:

Germany / Netherlands

Both in Germany and the Netherlands, 'Toi-Toi-Toi' has been a way of wishing someone good luck. The formula is used to "neutralize" something you have talked about so that it will not become reality. A comment like "My bike's light isn't working; I could have an accident" you can get rid of this danger by saying toi-toi-toi.

“The formula is used to neutralize something you have talked about”

As for it's origin, there are various explanations. Some say that the expression originates from the Yiddish "tof" or "tow" which translates to - Good. Another explanation has a more religious source. A threefold, abbreviated mention of the devil (in German: “Teufel”) can also be considered. In a dictionary from the German region Swabia a saying is listed: "No kommt mer in 's Teu-Teu-Teufelskuchen bey him" Last but not least "toi, toi, toi" as an onomatopoeic substitute for spitting, which was increasingly perceived as indecent from the 18th century onward. The expression then shared the origin of a Yiddish expression documented as "tfu, tfu, tfu", which was used in a similar meaning, for example, in business.

France / Spain

The history of "merde" begins in 19th-century Paris when patrons of the Paris Opéra Ballet would arrive at the Palais Garnier in horse-drawn carriages. If there was a full house, there was sure to be a lot of horse manure in front of the theater. Saying "merde" became a way to tell your fellow dancers to have a good show for the packed audience. According to Rhodes-Stevens, "When dancers say 'merde' to one another, they are wishing each other a full and approving audience."

Spain knows a similar version of the expression. Mucha mierda” comes from the 16th and 17th centuries when rich people came to theaters in horse carriages. More people meant more success, but also meant more carriages, and more carriages more horses, and of course more horses… more shit!