In theatre, there is a superstition that wishing good luck to an actor or actress brings them bad luck instead. Because of this, theatre cast around all around Europe have traditionally wished bad luck on each other or cursed to counteract this. This superstition is likely the root of the phrase “break a leg”, which is an expression used to wish well for a person who is about to perform. Similar customs are found in other European countries, such as “merde!” in France (meaning “shit”). “Merde” is also used frequently in professional dancing circles, especially ballet dancers.
The exact meaning of the phrase is not known, but there are many theories. The “leg” may be referring to the side curtains of the stage. In the past, actors were not paid unless their act made it onto the stage. Therefore, “breaking” the “leg” – as in stepping past the curtains on to the stage – was an act of success and a guarantee of a paycheck. “Breaking a leg” may be referring to the act of bending one’s leg and bowing – something that is done repeatedly at the end of a show, especially if it was successful. More obscure theories include the story of a famous British actor in the 18th century literally breaking his leg while passionately acting out a scene from Shakespeare’s Richard III.