As a child, I frequently half-wondered what country’s currency consisted of human limbs, as my parents were always going on about how this or that cost “an arm and a leg.” English isn’t the only phrase where body parts counted as currency, according to the Phrase Finder:
In France – Ça coûte les yeux de la tête – It costs the eyes from the head.
Bulgaria – Това струва майка си и баща – It costs one’s mother and father.
While Bulgaria wins for most horrifying turn of phrase ever, I’m still interested in “an arm and a leg.” Where did this rather graphic and fairly gross phrase come from?
According to Phrase Finder, “cost an arm and a leg” is an American-coined phrase that first made an appearance in 1949, shortly after World War II. Two very different theories are commonly used to explain its origin.
The full portrait theory explains that portrait artists would commonly charge a higher commission fee for paintings that included the subject’s arms, and a premium for portraits in which the whole body, legs and all, was shown on canvas. Phrase Finder maintains that there’s no truth in this theory, and instead offers a more likely, and more American, origin story:
A more likely explanation is that the expression derived from two earlier phrases: ‘I would give my right arm for…’ and ‘[Even] if it takes a leg’, which were both coined in the 19th century.
“Costs an arm and a leg” turns out to be a cute origin story, two phrases meeting and falling in love and eventually producing a brand-new phrase. I love a happy ending.