'Break a leg for luck': how popular but strange English idioms came about - ForumDaily
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'Break a leg for luck': how popular but strange English idioms came to be

In English, many idioms have a very interesting history of origin. FoxNews tells where three popular expressions came from.

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Popular catchphrases are often metaphorical interpretations of real meaning. But where did they come from? Who came up with these or those expressions and sayings that Americans often use today? Read about how the 10 most popular English idioms came to be in our article.

Here are 3 popular idioms and their origin stories.

1. Bite the bullet

Verbatim translation: hold a bullet with your teeth.

Value: clench your teeth.

On the subject: Enriching our speech: 45 English analogues of Russian proverbs

The phrase “gritting your teeth” usually describes the moment when someone who was previously afraid to make a decision finally decides to make it.

For example, you might bite the bullet when making an expensive purchase, such as a house or car.

This phrase is appropriate to use when something unexpected happens and someone has to make a difficult decision or take action.


Many sources claim that this idiom originated from the realities of wartime. People have clenched the bullet between their teeth to cope with pain during medical procedures performed under emergency conditions without proper anesthesia. It is described in Francis Grose's 1796 book, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

The first written appearance of this expression as an idiom was recorded in 1891 in Rudyard Kipling's book The Light Went Out.

Kipling wrote: “Stop, Dickie, stop! - said a deep voice in his ear, and the grip tightened. “Catch the bullet between your teeth, old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid.”

2. Like ships passing in the night

Literal translation: like ships passing in the night.

Value: like ships at sea.

The popular phrase has a famous history as it comes from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

This saying is usually applied to describe a relationship between two people who may be physically close but do not communicate or interact for various reasons.

For example, often couples can be like ships at sea caring for a newborn child. Parents begin to take care of the baby in shifts so that each of them gets enough sleep during such a difficult time.

Or this comparison can be used to describe close friends, each of whom is so busy that they barely communicate, even if they live in the same city or area. The expression is suitable for people who may not see each other for a long time.


"The Theologian's Tale" is a poem by Longfellow. He is the author of this metaphorical phrase.
An excerpt from this poem reads: “Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing. / Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness" (“Ships that pass each other at night and talk in passing / Only a signal and a distant voice are visible in the darkness”).

3. Break a leg

Literal translation: To break a leg.

Value: in Russian the closest expression is “Neither fluff nor feather!”

This phrase is often used to wish someone good luck at an important moment in life.
Most often the expression is used when wishing good luck to an actor, singer, musician or speaker before a performance or event.


One of the most common theories about the origin of this phrase dates back to the beginnings of theatre.

This popular expression today dates back to the time of Shakespeare. Then the phrase break a leg was used to mean “bow with knees bent.” This strange wish was addressed to theater actors before they went on stage. This explains a lot: if the performance went off with a bang, then at the end all the actors go on stage and bow to the audience. Hence the expression was a wish not to break a leg, but to perform a great performance, reports Englex.

There are other versions. For example, superstitious people believe that wishing good luck can scare away that very luck. They believe that a person can be jinxed by promising him good luck. And quite the opposite, if you want to break a leg, this will scare away the dark forces, and fortune will definitely smile on the person.

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In Ancient Greece, spectators did not applaud, but stomped. Therefore, it was understood that the actor’s performance would be so cool that the audience would stomp loudly and someone would even break their leg from zeal.

Leg is part of the mechanism that raises and lowers the curtain. The idea is that actors will be called to bow so many times for their amazing performance that a leg will break.

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