Friday’s Phrase – An Arm and a Leg

Welcome to the weekly series “Friday’s Phrase”. A whimsical and informative look at the idioms, phrases, proverbs and colloquialisms we commonly use, what they mean, and where they came from.

This week’s phrase:           an arm and a leg

So far in this series, this is my favorite. Unfortunately, it achieves that status because it is one whose origin, I thought I already knew, and I was wrong. I had somehow bought into a reasonable, if erroneous, explanation without any research on my own. Today I learned more than the origin of this phrase, I also learned to question anything I think I already know without verifying the available information through my own efforts.

Current accepted meaning:

Noun; slang

  1. An excessively high cost, expensive.

College tuitions cost an arm and a leg nowadays.

  1. An expression of desperate determination, when used with words such as ‘cost, charge, or pay’.

I’m going to get my revenge even if it takes an arm and a leg!

Historical Recorded Use:

When considering first use in print, it is important to note that this phrase is derivative of earlier colloquialisms such as ‘give my right arm for…’ or ‘…takes a leg’, both coined in the 19th century.

An early American example of it is given in a story from the Iowa newspaper, the Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye, July 1875:

“A man who owes five years subscription to the Gazette is trying to stop his paper without paying up, and the editor is going to grab that back pay if it takes a leg.”

But the earliest example that I can find in print is from an 1849 edition of Sharpe’s London Journal:

“He felt as if he could gladly give his right arm to be cut off if it would make him, at once, old enough to go and earn money instead of Lizzy.”

In its entirety, the phrase is first seen in print in, 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.”


I remember, at some point, in my early life hearing someone offer the origin of this phrase as an American phrase, coined sometime after WWII. A stark phrase born of the many US newspaper reports of servicemen who had lost an arm and a leg in the recent war. But I immediately knew this was likely not the origin. My education, even then, had made me realize that this ‘cost’ of warfare existed in battles fought centuries before WWII, so this origin did not seem logical and I dismissed it. This fictional history may be tied to the use of the entire phrase in the reference above.

Later, I heard the tale 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. Knowing the difficulties that even the best artists have with capturing the correct scale and detail of human hands and feet, this seemed logical, and incorrectly probable, as an origin. Only my research for this article revealed there is no historical truth to that information. Painters did charge more based on overall size, but there is no indication they charged by limb count.

When seeing the early use of parts of this phrase to mean the same as its entirety, we can see this phrase has morphed from earlier concepts and uses. It is logical to accept that the loss of limb, seen throughout the ages from war or disease, is the true origin of this representation of an extremely high cost that no person would want to pay. And like others, was used as common tongue well before ever being written down. As well, there can be no claim made to an American origin.


Always do your homework. Question everything.


Bonus Phrase: (provided at no extra charge)

We can date this particular phrase to the 19th century, but the concept exists through many languages in very similar hyperbolic idioms:

In France – Ça coûte les yeux de la tête – It costs the eyes from the head.
In Bulgaria – Това струва майка си и баща – It costs one’s mother and father.

2 Responses to “Friday’s Phrase – An Arm and a Leg”
  1. Hey there! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this article to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

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