In this sentence seen in a fan forum on the web – Go break a leg, Yao – "break a leg" is explained as "good luck", how come?
Break a leg, Yao.
It's a scary thought, isn't it? Any time I see Yao Ming fall to the floor clutching his ankle (as he did two days ago in the Olympics opener against USA), I am scared.
Anyways, "break a leg" is an old idiom in Britain and America, meaning "good luck". Indeed, how come?
There are many theories as to its origin, the most plausible ones (to me) point to superstition and ancient theater.
In many cultures including Chinese, people don't always say "good luck" outright to someone about to embark on a journey or adventure. This is perhaps due to the fact that well-wishing notwithstanding, bad luck (accidents and so forth) does happen and so therefore in some cases, saying "good luck" outright becomes a bad omen. It is as though, you see, in soliciting good luck, one wakens up the demons as well. Voodoo as it may sound, this is actually not inconsistent with human psychology (or common sense, sticking to the superstition side) – The more we look for something, the more elusive it sometimes becomes. That's why Taoists say: In trying to get it you don't get it; in not trying to get it you sometimes get it. In other words, don't try too hard.
On the other hand, therefore, to say "Break a leg" is like confronting the demons head-on – as though saying to the devils, I am aware you're there so don't bother playing mischief in an attempt to catch me off guard.
Another theory concerns British theater. After giving a good performance in ancient times, happy and satisfied audiences throw coins onstage to show their appreciation. Actors then come back onstage, kneeling down, to collect the money. And when they kneel, they are said to be "breaking a leg (line)" – when one stands erect, they have a straight leg line; when they curve their legs, the straight leg line is broken. Therefore, for actors to "break a leg", they have to have given a good performance.
"Break a leg" also denotes effort, as in "I may not get there in time, but I'll break a leg trying (to get there in time)". So "Break a leg, Yao", in addition to good luck, also suggests hard work, which Yao always gives, of course. Personally, however, when it comes to Yao, I prefer a plain nice "good luck" any time – the guy's had so many lower-leg injuries that "break a leg" just ceases to sound right. If Yao needs a break, he needs a good break.
Anyways, here are a few media examples of "break a leg":
1. Will Heather Mills McCartney 'Break a Leg'?
Bookies are taking bets on whether the artificial limb of Paul McCartney's soon-to-be ex-wife will fall off when she hits the dance floor March 19 for the new season of "Dancing With the Stars."
Bodog.com, an online gaming site based in Antigua, opened bets Monday on the fate of McCartney's prosthetic, heavily favoring "no," Reuters reports.
The 39-year-old former model lost her left leg below the knee in a traffic accident in 1993.
"It's very, very unlikely my leg's going to fly off even though it would be quite funny to knock one of the judges out," she told the TV show "EXTRA" last week. "I'm hoping to show people that even with a prosthetic leg you can dance."
- AP, March 13, 2007.
2. 'Break a Leg' actor takes it literally
Actor David Middleton was told ‘break a leg' before a 42-date theatre tour - and then tripped over a pavement outside his house.
David, 45, was forced to go on tour with his leg in plaster after shattering his ankle in the trip.
David said: "It's such an old tradition in the theatre that you should say break a leg before you go on - because it's bad luck to say good luck.
"But I never thought it would happen to me...."
- The Mirror, August 2, 2000.