An Arm and a Leg

| February 10, 2018

Ever wondered the meaning of the phrase ‘An arm and a leg?’

Here’s one meaning: A large, possibly exorbitant, amount of money.

Origin: ‘It cost and arm and a leg’ is one of those phrases that rank high in the ‘I know where that comes from’ stories told at the local pub. In this case the tale is that portrait painters used to charge more for larger paintings and that a head and shoulders painting was the cheapest option, followed in price by one which included arms and finally the top of the range ‘legs and all’ portrait.

As so often with popular etymologies, there’s no truth in that story. Painters certainly did charge more for large pictures, but there’s no evidence to suggest they did so by limb count. In any case the phrase is much more recent than the painting origin would suggest.

Another meaning: Cost an arm and a leg – An American phrase coined sometime after WWII. The earliest citation this writer found is from The Long Beach Independent, December 1949:
Food Editor Beulah Karney has more than 10 ideas for the homemaker who wants to say “Merry Christmas” and not have it cost her an arm and a leg.

‘Arm’ and ‘leg’ are used as examples of items that no one would consider selling other than at an enormous price. It is a grim reality that, around that time, there were many US newspaper reports of servicemen who had lost an arm and a leg in the recent war. It is possible that the phrase originated in reference to the high cost paid by those who suffered such amputations.

phrases.org.uk

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Category: Culture & Society, Delia Dolor, Delia's Escapades

About the Author (Author Profile)

Delia Dolor is an all-round media professional. She produces and presents television, radio and live shows. She is also a public speaker, magazine and print editor.
Delia has been credited with creating a more intimate confessional form of media communication and to have influenced the way talk shows in the Caribbean can influence the lives of others.

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