Where did ‘costs an arm and a leg’ originate?

Why we started using the phrase ‘it costs an arm and a leg’.

Detached doll arms and legs on black

When something ‘costs an arm and a leg’ you are saying it costs an exorbitant amount of money. It’s a popular phrase but do you know where it started?

One theory is that it comes from portrait painters around the 18th century. It was believed that the cheapest way to commission a portrait was to ask for just the head and bust, as painters charged extra for ‘arms and legs’. However, there’s no actual evidence to support this theory. Yes, painters charged more for larger works but there’s no proof that this had anything to do with limbs.

Another theory is that it originated in America sometime after the Second World War. The phrase can be found in The Long Beach Independent newspaper, 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.

We can all agree that arms and legs are limbs that no one would consider selling – except for an exorbitant amount. At this time, many servicemen had returned home from the war with lost limbs. It is likely that this origin was in reference to the high cost they paid to serve.

Have you heard any other theories about where this saying originated?



    To make a comment, please register or login
    9th Sep 2016
    It must be a slow Friday. Need to get Leon on to the job.
    Polly Esther
    9th Sep 2016
    where did the term 'slow Friday' originate by the way? :- :-)
    Young Simmo
    9th Sep 2016
    Polly Esther, "Slow Friday" is a union expression meaning, don't do any work, just look like you are doing something. It has been around for 100 years.
    9th Sep 2016
    The saying is more likely to have come from sculptors, rather than artists.

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