break a leg

Expressions with profound meanings or exciting origin stories tend to be used frequently in the English language, everything from “barking up the wrong tree” to “don’t cry over spilled milk.” Famous sayings are typically a metaphoric spin on real meanings, but where did they come from, and who came up with some of these sayings and expressions we often use today? Here’s some more information about a few particular sayings that are fun to understand and know more about.

“Bite the bullet.”

The saying ‘bite the bullet’ is typically used to describe a moment when someone might’ve been hesitant about making a decision and then ultimately decides to go for it. For example, one might “bite the bullet” when making an expensive purchase like a car, home, or other big-ticket item. “Biting the bullet” might also be used when the unexpected happens, and someone has to continue with a difficult action or decision. While the origins of the phrase are unconfirmed, many sources say it came from actual wartime moments when people would bite a bullet between their teeth to deal with pain during medical procedures done in emergencies without anesthesia, as described in “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” a 1796 book written by Francis Grose.

The author wrote, “It's a point of honor in some regiments to never cry out while under the punishment of the cat of nine tails. To avoid crying, they chew a bullet." Other sources say that people enduring punishment in times gone would bite on bullets to try and take their minds off the humiliation or agony. Its first appearance as an idiom in writing happened in 1891 in a book called "The Light That Failed" by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling wrote, "Steady, Dickie, steady! Bite on the bullet, old man and don't let them think you're afraid."

"Like ships passing in the night."

The famous phrase has more of a known history, as it came from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The saying is typically used to describe two people who may be close in physical proximity but don't interact or communicate for various reasons. For example, it's expected that couples might feel like "ships passing in the night" while taking care of a newborn baby, as the parents might work in shifts to guarantee each of them gets enough sleep during this demanding time.

The simile could also describe friends who are so busy with their lives and responsibilities that they barely get to stop and say hello even though they live in the same neighborhood or city, and they may not see each other for a long time. "The Theologian's Tale" is a Longfellow poem credited for this metaphoric phrase, according to Dictionary Online. A portion of the 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."

"Break a leg."

This well-known phrase is typically used to wish someone good luck in an important moment in life. Arguably, the most common time to use "break a leg" is when wishing a musician, singer, or speaker the best of luck before an event or performance. A common theory about the phrase’s origin comes from the early days of theater, which was known to be somewhat superstitious. Performers thought saying “Good luck” would bring bad luck on stage, so they’d tell fellow performers to “break a leg” instead. That way, the opposite would occur, and instead of breaking a leg, the performer would give a fabulous performance.

Some think it came from the German saying, “Hals-und Beinbruch,” meaning “neck and leg break.” According to The Transcendence Theatre Company of California, the phrase was used when ensemble actors were queued to perform. On its website, it adds, “If actors weren’t performing, they had to stay behind the leg line, which meant they wouldn’t get compensated.” If you told an actor to “break a leg,” you were wishing them the chance to get paid and perform. The sentiment is the same in today’s theatre; the term means “Give a good performance, good luck.”

Now that you know the history behind some beloved idioms in the English language, you’ll know how to use them and share your knowledge with your loved ones.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad