Wednesday 23 May 2012

An Arm and a Leg

I read in an email recently "In George Washington's days, there were no cameras. One's image was either sculpted or painted. Some paintings of George Washington showed him standing behind a desk with one arm behind his back while others showed both legs and both arms. Prices charged by painters were not based on how many people were to be painted, but by how many limbs were to be painted. Arms and legs are 'limbs,' therefore painting them would cost the buyer more. Hence the expression, 'Okay, but it'll cost you an arm and a leg.' (Artists know hands and arms are more difficult to paint)"

It sounded like a total piece of bollocks to me, so I went and did a 2 minute search on the web. I found several items:
  1. From PhraseFinder (
    An arm and a leg - "A large sum of money; as if worth two of one's four limbs." From "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable" revised by Adrian Room (HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 1999, Sixteenth Edition). No origin is given.
    There's another Brewer's entry that sounds like it might have a connection: Chance one's arm - "To run a risk in the hope of succeeding and obtaining a profit or advantage. The.phrase is of army origin. A non-commissioned officer who offends against service regulations risks demotion and the loss of a stripe from his sleeve."
  2. From PhraseFinder ( an American phrase, coined sometime after WWII. The earliest citation I can find 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 are many US newspaper reports of servicemen who lost an arm and a leg in the recent war. It is quite likely, although difficult to prove conclusively at this remove, that the phrase originated in reference to the high cost paid by those who suffered such amputations.
  3. From Snopes (
    "If it takes a leg" (used to express desperate determination) dates to 1872. Similarly, print sightings for "I'd give my right arm" (to be able to do something especially desired) go back as far as 1616.
  4. From Word-Wizard ( says it was popularised in print in 1956 and is nothing to do with painting.
  5. Surprisingly, our man from WorldWideWords ( is silent on this one. This guy is usually, etymologically-speaking, sound as.
So where does all this leave us? Possibly the phrase has sprung from a mixture. It will cost you an arm, based on 'chancing your arm' or giving your right arm; to which someone has inflated the value with 'and a leg'. It sounds much more logical to me :-)


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