What costs an arm and a leg?

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?

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