The Grammarphobia Blog

Pulling one’s leg

Q: Where does the expression “to pull one’s leg” come from? Could it have anything to do with pirates or smugglers hiding things in wooden legs? I just wonder.

A: The expression, which means to deceive or tease a person humorously or playfully, first showed up in print in the 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation in the OED is from the Feb. 20, 1883, issue of a Pennsylvania newspaper, the Wellsboro Agitator: “The Chinese giant once told me he had half a dozen wives at home, but I think he was pulling my leg.”

However, we’ve found earlier examples going back to the mid-1800s, including this one from Always Ready; or Every One in His Pride, an anonymous 1859 novel about the British Merchant Navy:

“In reply to which both brothers commenced ‘pulling his leg’ by criticising his rig, asking him ‘Who his hatter was?’ and politely wishing those present to ‘twig his heels.’ ” (The expression “twig his heels” is apparently obsolete slang for tease or criticize.)

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has an even earlier example, an 1821 entry from the Diary of James Gallatin, but it may be fraudulent. Historians have questioned the legitimacy of the diary and have suggested it’s a hoax.

For example, Raymond Walters Jr., writing in the July 1957 issue of The American Historical Review, says “the diary must be considered historical romance” and libraries “that own copies of it should transfer them to their fiction shelves.”

We can’t find any evidence that the expression “to pull one’s leg” ever had anything to do with pirates, smugglers, or peg legs. Nor with pulling the legs of prisoners on the gallows to speed up executions—a common theory.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms says the usage “is thought to allude to tripping someone by so holding a stick or other object that one of his legs is pulled back.”

Why trip someone? The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins suggests that by tripping a person “you can throw him into a state of confusion and make him look very foolish indeed.”

We’ve also seen speculation that the usage originated with muggers who tripped their victims with a stick to make it easier to rob them, but we haven’t seen any evidence to support this idea.

Our theory? We’ll file the expression away in our “Origin Unknown” folder.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

­