Speaking as someone who’s a little bit on the autistic spectrum, I’ve never really liked expressions like ‘break a leg.’ I do know that they don’t mean to literally break your leg and that it isn’t an actual threat or anything like that. I have to work a little harder to remind myself of that, though, and I really don’t like to have to do that just so people can tell an overused joke.
Then again, I’ve accepted that this is really the kind of thing that’s just become a part of modern parlance, and I’m just going to have to live with it. I should probably give a little bit of an explanation for my fellow autistic travelers.
They say to ‘break a leg’ because that’s one of the worst things that can happen. The idea is that if you ironically mention that something bad is going to happen, and then something good is probably going to happen instead. At least, that’s how a lot of people mean it when they say to break a leg before an audition.
A lot of people don’t even think about what the expression means these days. It could really mean anything to a lot of people nowadays. Being able to break a leg before an audition is one thing if you think about it ironically, but for a lot of people, you may as well be saying ‘blah blah blah’ before an audition, and it would mean the same thing.
Today, people mean this ironically because the irony was a very basic form of expression for a long time, and it still is today. In the past, people did not use irony as often as a basic means of communication. People were more superstitious in the past, and the phrase ‘break a leg’ reflected a superstitious idea that things in the theater that are bad luck are actually good luck. As such, you would have to wish bad luck on someone in order to give him or her good luck in reality.
We know that this expression has been used in print since Edna Ferber’s 1939 work, ‘A Peculiar Treasure.’ It’s been used in a lot of movies, television shows, books, newspaper articles, and even theatrical reviews since then. This expression is not going to go away any time soon, although people still are probably not going to be using it forever.