It is common knowledge that one should wish an actor “break a leg” for a great performance; to wish an actor “good luck” is considered to be bad luck! The origin of this maudlin greeting, first recorded in print in the early 1920s, is a little vague.
Of course, theatre ghosts are always a consideration; it was thought that mischievous theatre ghosts would wreak havoc on good wishes and make the opposite happen.
The most common theory suggests that ‘leg’ refers not to the actor but to the short curtains that hide the backstage from the audience; breaking a leg means the actor has stepped from the wings into the spotlight. In Vaudeville companies, only those actors who actually stepped on stage got paid so perhaps break a leg was a simple wish that an actor would get paid.
Other ideas suggest that the manner in which the audience showed appreciation for the performance is responsible for the phrase. In ancient Greece the audience stomped their feet and during Elizabethan times, the audience would bang their chairs on the ground.
And still others say that bowing – placing one leg behind the other and bending the front leg, thus breaking the line of the leg as viewed by an audience – is the reason for the phrase.
There are, of course, more theories, but the point remains, please wish our actors ‘break a leg’ and not good luck!