An Arm and a Leg (Origin)

What Is the Origin of the Saying "An Arm and a Leg"?

The term "an arm and a leg" means very expensive. It is usually seen the phrase "It costs an arm and leg."

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An Arm and a Leg (Origin)

Examples of Use:

  • Nice car! That must have cost an arm and a leg.
  • Going to university used to be free in the UK. Nowadays, it costs an arm and a leg.
  • Their burritos cost an arm and a leg, but they're the best in town.
This idiom originates from the Irish halfpenny coins in the 17th century. On 23rd October 1680, King Charles II patented Sir Thomas Armstrong and Colonel George Legge to manufacture copper halfpennies for use in Ireland. These coins were later used by Irish emigrants to the American colonies. The phrase "It will cost you an Arm and a Leg" (note the capital letters) was an abbreviation of the patentees' names. Therefore, this term originally meant "It will cost you a halfpenny." Over time, this evolved to "an arm and a leg," which people would have assumed meant a person's limbs, which is how the "very expensive" aspect developed.

Competing Theory

This term originates from America after World War II. During the war, many servicemen lost arms and legs. Therefore, for some, the price of the war was "an arm and a leg." Of course, this was a high price for anyone to pay for anything, and it soon came into common usage to mean "expensive."

Competing Theory

This term is an amalgamation of "I would give my right arm for something" and "Even if it takes a leg," which are ways of expressing a costly sacrifice to get something.

Competing Theory

The term "an arm and a leg" originates from how portrait painting were priced. Paintings featuring just a head and shoulders were the cheapest. Larger, full-body paintings (i.e., those with arms and legs) were far more expensive. Detractors of this theory note that the term is far more recent than when portrait paintings were fashionable.

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.