Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘1921’

Break A Leg

Posted by Admin on November 3, 2015

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t heard the expression break a leg although they may not always recognize it as a wish of good luck to another.  But it is.  The idiom is a theatrical superstition where performers believe that wishing a person “good luck” is considered bad luck, and so they wish them bad luck instead by way of broken bones.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE:  The industry standard when it comes to stages is for the stage to be sloped one inch per foot of stage space.  Data shows that theatrical productions with the maximum stage slope account for the highest percentage of injuries from sprains to fractures among performers.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune published a news article by Mary H. Williams in the column “Charlotte Life” on January 23, 1992 where the idiom introduced the writer’s comments about Jan Brandes of Port Charlotte and her debut with the Players of Sarasota.

Break a leg!” is a traditional parting phrase for performers preparing to go on stage.  Of course, this isn’t as brutal as it sounds.

It’s considered bad luck to wish an actor good luck, and somehow this phrase has taken hold in the thespian world.

Irish nationalist Robert Wilson Lynd published an article titled, “A Defence of Superstition” in the October 1, 1921 edition of the British liberal political and cultural magazine, New Statesman.  In his opinion, the theatre was the second-most superstitious institution in England with horse racing being the top most superstitious. It was Lynd’s assertion that one should wish participants something insulting such as ‘May you break a leg!‘ as wishing a participant luck was considered, according to superstition, bad luck.

Four years after this article was published, American romance and women’s fiction author, Faith Baldwin (October 1, 1893 – March 18, 1978) used it in her novel “Thresholds” published in 1925 as proven by this excerpt:

Rupert said, smiling a little: “Isn’t that a Teutonic expression employed before the chase?”

She laughed, lazily, over the lifted glass. “Not exactly. I believe that would be bad luck or something. You say, ‘I hope you break a leg’ — or your neck — or some such hope of calamity.”

In German, the saying is “Hals und Beinbruch” or break your neck and leg.  It’s been reported in numerous historical documents that German Air Force pilots used the phrase during the First World War.

In French, one says “Merde!” which translates into “Sh*t!” or, for those who are too shy to use such a coarse wish,  “cinq lettres” or “five letters” … one for each letter in the French word they don’t want to say.

In Spanish, the phrase is “mucha mierda” or “lots of sh*t.”

Some believe it’s a misheard version of the Yiddish phrase “Baruch aleichem” which means “bless you” and when said aloud, it sounds similar to break a leg (bah rak a lay kem) to those who don’t speak Yiddish.

But back in 1684, according to “A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English” to break a leg was to seduce someone.  According to John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley who were responsible for creating this seven-volume work published in 1905, their tome states that this is what was meant by break a leg way back when.  Their dictionary was a result of researching multiple dictionaries that dated back as far as 1440 and included, but weren’t limited to, the works of John Palsgrave (1530), John Withals (1553), Peter Levins (1570), Cladius Hollyband (1593), John Bullokar (1616), Thomas Blount (1656), Richard Head (1674), E.B. Gent (1696), Nathan Bailey (1737), Francis Gross (1785), John Jamieson (1808), John R. Bartlett (1848), Charles Pascoe (1881), and Albert Barrere (1887).

Going with the definition of break a leg from 1684, what better luck could you wish a performer headed on stage than that he should seduce the audience that awaited him?

However, the meaning of the idiom as we understand it today, dates back to 1921 regardless of how well it applied to the theatre in 1684.  So the next time you find yourself in front of an audience, don’t be shy:  Break a leg!

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Go By The Board

Posted by Admin on February 14, 2011

The phrase “go by the board” has fallen out of use, however,at one point, it was quite popular and without a doubt, it’s still an interesting expression, even today. Nautical in nature, the phrase refers to the board of a ship where, when masts of sailing ships  fell over it was said they had go[ne] by the board.

Strangely enough, though, the phrase also has 2 other meanings.  One refers to following the rules of a game while the other refers to bending the law to get what one wants.  Both of these meanings came about as a result of the American indulgence in betting and card playing which was one of many pass times the British colonists brought with them to the New World.

In 1921, American novelist, short story writer, and designer Edith Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for her book, “The Age of Innocence.”  The following is included in her book:

He had not to wait a moment for the answer. “To beg you, Monsieur–to beg you with all the force I’m capable of–not to let her go back.–Oh, don’t let her!” M. Riviere exclaimed.

Archer looked at him with increasing astonishment. There was no mistaking the sincerity of his distress or the strength of his determination: he had evidently resolved to let everything go by the board but the supreme need of thus putting himself on record. Archer considered.

“May I ask,” he said at length, “if this is the line you took with the Countess Olenska?”

The phrase is found in The Gettysburg Republican Compiler dated November 1837 wherein it states:

Those banks that do not resume speedily will go by the board.

One of the earliest references to the expression “go by the board” is found in the introduction to the first volume of the Wittenberg Edition of Martin Luther‘s writings back in 1539 wherein he wrote:

I would have been quite content to see my books, one and all, remain in obscurity and go by the board!

Idiomation is unable to find a published version of this phrase earlier than the Martin Luther reference however the ease with which Martin  Luther used the expression indicates that the phrase was common place in the early 1500s and quite possibly before then.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

Posted by Admin on April 20, 2010

The phrase is attributed to Frederick R. Barnard but that’s not quite correct.  The phrase is actually an amalgamation of two advertising campaigns and not, as is oftentimes claimed, solely from a 1927 advertisement in the advertising trade journal, Printers’ Ink

In the December 8, 1921 issue, the slogan was: “One Look is Worth A Thousand Words.”    It referred to the benefits of advertising with pictures on street cars.

In the March 10, 1927 issue, the slogan was:  “One Picture is Worth Ten Thousand Words.”   This referred to a baking soda ad campaign conducted by Barnard’s firm.    To give the ad more kick, Barnard’s firm claimed it was a Chinese proverb so that people would take it more seriously.  And, as was the case in the early 20th century, Chinese proverbs were immediately credited to Confucious because he is the best known of all Chinese philosophers.

However, even with amalgamating both ads from Printers’ Ink together, Barnard is not the first person to come up with this idea.  That honour goes to newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane of the Syracuse Advertising Men’s Club.  In March 1911 — a decade before Barnard’s 1921 advertisement — Brisbane gave an instructional talk wherein he stated:  “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century, Slogans | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »