Episode 8Fractured Fortunes & Dynamic Publications
00:00 / 20:16

Details and Transcript

References

Theme Music​

Transcript

To my exceptional family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to the eighth episode of the Metaphorigins Podcast.

 

To show support if you like this sort of content, please make sure to rate and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or whatever platform you are listening to this on, and follow @metaphorigins on Instagram, where I will be posting most of my updates, as well as on my personal website: kjbmercurio.com/metaphorigins. Remember that I will hold another giveaway on the 10th episode, so stay tuned for that.

 

Okay. Today’s episode walks through origins to an expression you’ve certainly heard before, one that sounds more like a trip to the emergency room than its true meaning.

 

Let’s determine the setting, or rather the audition: you’ve dropped you’re regular 9-to-5 job in pursuit of your real passion, acting. You realize that you will join a job market with a success rate similar to getting struck by lightning, twice. But you don’t care. You’ve got the brains. You’ve got the chops. You’ve got what thousands of other aspiring actors and actresses don’t have, and can really make it in the “biz”.

 

The first year after moving to Hollywood wasn’t at all like you had planned. Money was tight, and you couldn’t afford living in the studio apartment on Sunset Boulevard anymore. You couldn’t manage part time work because, there just wasn’t any openings. Every job you wanted, could do or didn’t want was taken by some cast member of the next blockbuster, the next broadway, or a busker hoping that their street performance just happened to be on the walking route of an executive from Disney or Universal.

 

Desperate times call for desperate measures. You start betting your luck at the local casino. You win some bucks here, lose some bucks there. But it was that thrill the kept bringing you back. You move on to more advanced and, sketchy, sort of gambling. You bet savings on NBA and NFL games, winning big. But also, losing big. In fact, in the last game you bet on, 1994s Dallas Cowboys vs. the Buffalo Bills, you lost everything. And now the bookie and his goons are after you and you go into hiding.

 

But finally, some good news. You get a call back from your last audition. It’s for an odd neo-noir mystery film called “The Usual Suspects”. The character is one of the leads, a con-artist named “Verbal”.

 

You are about to leave for your second audition when you receive a knock on your apartment door. You open it without thinking and two large bodyguards with arms the size of bowling balls pick you up off the ground and shove you into your dining chair.

 

“Where do you think you’re going?” your bookie says behind the two collossals.

 

“Me? Actually I was just about to see you. What a coincidence.”

 

The bookie nods at one of the bodyguards, signalling for the excruciating pain of a punch to the stomach.

 

“Really? Because I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for months. Almost like you were hiding from me.”

 

“Hiding? No. What? Now that’s funny, how you misinterpreted my… my… my busy schedule with auditions! Yeah, you caught me, I lied about coming to see you. But I got a callback for a role in the next Best Picture. It’s called “The Usual Suspects” and my character is…”

 

Another nod from the bookie signalling throbbing side pain after a punch to the ribs.

 

“I don’t give two pisses and a wet shit about your audition. Where’s my money?”

 

“I got it, I mean I will get it. I need another few weeks. I’ll get this role and you’ll have your money in no time, with interest.”

 

“Well give me something to ensure that you stay true to your word.”

 

“But I have nothing!” you plead.

 

You now notice that the other bodyguard was not in the room and was crawling around your bedroom. He emerged from the doorway. “Hey boss, I found a stash of cash. Lying again.”

 

You say, “I can explain…”

 

“No need,”  the bookie nods to the first bodyguard. “For the audition, break a leg, will ya,” And left the apartment.

 

“No please, no, don’t please!”

The body guard tilts the chair backwards and you fall to the ground. He grabs your left foot in the process and twists the ankle so that it snaps in multiple places. You scream in pain as the two bodyguards leave you on the floor.

 

After some time you get up and try walking. It’s broken for sure but you have no time to waste. You call up a taxi and slowly limp outside. It’s hopeless, you’re never going to get the role now.

 

You arrive and are greeted by the casting director, who smiles and says, “I don’t remember you have a gait, this is interesting. What’s your name?”

 

“Kevin Spacey,” you say, “and I’m here for the role of Roger Kint”.

 

I might have lost the majority of you with this winded movie reference, but if you haven’t seen the Usual Suspects, I would highly recommend that you do (shoutout to more time due to staying at home). The expression here is a, peculiar one, as it means the exact opposite of what you are intending to wish. But why not just wish good fortune instead of hoping they fracture bones?

 

What is the origin to the expression, “break a leg”?

 

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Most of this information was obtained from various articles that debate on the many origin stories to this expression. All sources will be mentioned in the description.

 

“Break a leg” is a frequent expression used to wish someone good luck. It’s most commonly used in the theatre industry but has expanded into different disciplines. In actuality, it’s used in almost every instance that someone wants to accomplish a goal, whether that be doing well in a play, playing well in a sport, or hell, baking a complicated cake.

 

This expression is unique as it is an example of an ironic, dead metaphor. Ironic in that, by hoping your conversational partner “breaks a leg” you are, contrary to an alien civilization who thinks they finally understand the English language, actually wishing them good luck. Moreover, according to Webster’s Dictionary, a dead metaphor is some figure of speech that has lost its metaphoric force through common usage. Think “time is running out”, which initially aided in visualizing the passage of time in an hourglass, or “body of an essay”, which compared the main part of an essay to the human body. When using these dead metaphors, people don’t normally think about the hourglass or a human body, the things that drove the metaphor in the first place.

 

There are also alternatives to “break a leg”, depending on the type of art you are showcasing. Take dancers who shout “Merde!” (the French word for shit) to each other before their performance, or wishing “Toi toi toi!” to an Opera singer. The former, likely signifying the pile of dung in front of theatres during times in which horse-drawn carriages brought theatregoers to their destination, implying a popular show. Or the latter, regarding the the superstition of driving bad spirits away by spitting on the ground via onomatopoeia. It also had another meaning during Shakespearean times. Eric Partridge, a British-New Zealand lexicographer (or maker of dictionaries), said to “break a leg” also meant to “give birth to an illegitimate child”. Origin for this particular usage could not be found.

 

However, we’re going to walk straight through, down the diverse original meanings for “break a leg”. And I say meanings, as there is no consensus on when the phrase was first used. 

 

The most common reasoning behind this expression deal with the meaning of “leg" in theatre arts. So this is where we will begin.

 

In theatre, the boundary to the “viewable” part of the stage is often termed the “leg”. One potential original meaning for this expression was to break a “leg” and step onto the stage to act your role. This would mean you were part of the play and were paid for your work. “Leg” also describes the side curtains, and that by stepping through those curtains after the show was done (thereby breaking a leg), you would be called back on stage to give your bow and receive your applause. Bowing is also a potential original meaning to this metaphor. Curtseying was the usual way of bowing at the end of a performance, which required the artist to figuratively “break a leg” in order to do the action properly.

 

But the “leg” in this expression does not have to represent something of the artist or stage. In Ancient Greece, audience members would stomp their feet instead of applaud. If this were done often and hard enough due to a great performance, one could hypothetically break an audience member’s leg. Additionally, during Elizabethan times, chairs were stomped to represent that the audience was happy and entertained. Similarly, this could technically lead to breaking a chair leg.

 

More hypotheses circle around the theatre world for this origin. Legend has it that famed English actor David Garrick was so engrossed in his character during Shakespeare’s Richard the Third that he didn’t even notice that he had broken his leg at one point. This expression has also been attributed to glorified actress Sarah Bernhardt, who had only one leg. These seem unlikely, however, since breaking a leg does not seem to mean good luck, or any relatedness to it, in these cases.

 

Etymologists and figure of speech lovers alike have even attributed the expression to the infamous assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by actor John Wilkes Booth. After he shot Lincoln, he supposedly jumped off the balcony and onto the stage, breaking a leg in the process, and halting his escape. Though this has been widely criticized, as proof of this is derived from his diaries, which historians note has a lot of exaggerated, falsified claims.

 

Perhaps it goes beyond theatre, an original meaning that had nothing to do with theatre itself. Its first recorded use was by Robert Wilson Lynd in 1921. A literary essayist, Lynd stated that in horse racing, one would never wish a racer “good luck” so as to not push one’s luck too far. Rather, they would say something like “May you break your leg!” or “May your horse break a leg!”. He connects to theatre by stating that the discipline is second to horse racing in terms of superstition.

 

Etymologists also suggest that the expression is derived from Germanic origin. Around the time of World War I, German pilots were credited with saying “hals und beinbruch”, meaning “break all one’s bones”. This might make sense as the term “break a leg” was not popularized until after the war. Perhaps this German saying was derived from the Hebrew blessing “hatzlakha u-brakha” meaning “success and blessing”. Note that I probably butchered that. Orrrr, perhaps this was an example of schadenfreude, a German expression to derive pleasure from the misfortune of someone else. As stated in the autobiography of Edna Ferber, the Pulitzer-Prize winning American novelist, understudies would wish that principals would break their leg backstage and thus, replace them in their role. EEEEEP.

 

There are so many different theories for this one. Even professional theatre directors can’t confirm the original meaning behind this long-running tradition. The Transcendence Theatre Company in Sonoma, California refers to the most common theory, of how actors or actresses that passed the “leg line” made it to the stage and got paid for playing their role.

 

But unfortunately, this may be the first episode in which I cannot decisively conclude the true original meaning to an expression, in this case “break a leg”. Certainly a perfect example of a dead metaphor, but still interesting to navigate through the potential beginnings of this universal wish of “good luck”.

 

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For this episode’s science segment, I’m going to discuss an actual recent article published in the Atlantic Daily titled, “The Scientific Paper is Obsolete”. The link will be in the description.

 

This is an interesting article as it “hits square on the nose” what I believe is a major problem the scientific community has, the format of scientific papers. I would assume most of the people hearing this have read a scientific article at some point in your life. I hope you would agree that papers are the most soul-crushing, boring piece of literature in all of existence (perhaps second to a book that has too much setting description, and I’m talking about you Thomas Pynchon). Researchers could have discovered gravitational waves (and they did), or how cells can sense oxygen levels in the blood (and they did), leading to advancements in general relativity and drug development for anaemia (which they did), and I will still not find the motivation nor what they did to accomplish these feats.

 

I will talk more about this in a later episode, but the essential idea of a scientific paper, whether that be in Nature (the most widely credited Scientific Journal today), or in a more specified journal, is to communicate your work to the community. And yes, perhaps it’s not the goal of researchers to explain to the public its importance through this medium. But it certainly should be the goal to walk fellow researchers through a story; a typical story that sets the scene, determines character motivations, proceeding with the actions of said characters that lead to resulting information, and finally conclusions about said information. What this article states is the failing of scientific publications to accomplish this task.

 

The article is written by James Somers, a writer and programmer based in New York City. He wrote some interesting articles, mainly about coding, including one about using an algorithm to find the best clues for use in a Codenames board-game session. As a passionate board game collector, it seemed quite interesting, but way over my head. 

 

The article for this episode is also geared towards computational sciences. However, I think it is still one that connects to all scientists alike. It begins with an overview of publishing science in the past, a time, obviously, in which theories now regarded as base knowledge were just discovered. In fact, before the 1600s, results were not communicated through this format but in letters, lectures or perhaps a book. In modern day, groundbreaking work for future fundamental theories don’t need to be the ticket to getting into a scientific journal, but work that lays a brick or two along the path to a potential useful theory will help a researcher succeed in this goal.

 

As Somers states, “The more sophisticated science becomes, the harder it is to communicate results”. That’s evident in any publication, not just those found in specialized journals. But that makes sense, as most are building upon the prior knowledge in which provided the basis for this novel work. How can you communicate your work without having to explain the centuries of research done before you? In a paper about genetics, would you have to go into the work done on pea plants by Gregor Mendel?

 

Of course not. If anything, it would be an interesting side fact to your work, but still not quite grasping the point of what you do. And it already takes a long bulk of jargon-filled text to get through introducing what the hell you’re doing.

 

The author asks, “What would you get if you designed the scientific paper from scratch today?”. He cites Dr. Bret Victor, a researcher who worked at Apple and now runs his own lab in California. Though again, the article does focus on computer science, Victor uses his skills to redesign a landmark paper in his field. Links to both articles will be in the description.

 

Compared to a typical paper, the redesign’s physical appearance is visually striking. Not to sound too superficial, but the boldness of important concepts, the simple three-colour palette, the mini figures representing the work’s model of how to construct networks… It’s clean and easy to read. I mean, of course I will not understand, for example, the clustering coefficient, a metric used to quantify structural properties of a network, without further investigation on my part, it is still an interesting design to elaborate on important research.

 

The format is similar to a scientific paper, regarding the way to role out content, and perhaps if that is the best way of narrating a scientific discovery, so be it. It must still be a story, driven by motivation and characters, but in this case, the reader, making choices that lead to a result that will be interpreted. Imagine if this dynamic publication, in which the reader is the researcher, could propagate and become mainstream?

 

Now I fully acknowledge that I’m not an expert in communication or education. But the idea of allowing fellow researchers and even the public at large, to participate in your journey towards the discoveries you made, through some dynamic format surpassing the static PDF style, while still being open to interpret the same data you interpreted, is quite a novel, almost juvenile in a positive way, of communicating difficult scientific concepts. Ideas that although require years of knowledge to fully understand, that still could be understood regarding the motivations and methods. The public could stop there, and experts could continue on doing what the scientific community has been doing freely for years, properly critique.

 

Just think about it.

 

Thanks for listening to this episode of… Metaphorigins. Remember to rate and subscribe for more episodes and to follow the podcast on Instagram for updates on the next draw for a customized prize on my 10th episode. But until then, stay skeptical but curious.

 

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