Q: The other day one of my students asked me why a segment of a journey is called a “leg.” I didn’t have an answer. Could it be because distance was once measured in leagues, and someone misheard “league” as “leg”?
A: Many English words have literal meanings as well as figurative ones fashioned from them. The noun “leg” originally referred to one of the two long limbs that we stand or walk on, but it has taken on many metaphorical senses over the years.
For example, it may refer to something that covers a human leg (like a pants leg, 1558), or functions as a human leg (a furniture leg, 1616), or serves as a part of something else (a leg of a relay race, 1933). And in the plural, it may describe something popular with staying power (a show with legs, 1930). The dates are for the earliest citations of the senses in the Oxford English Dictionary.
When “leg” is used in the journey sense, according to the OED, it refers to “a part or section of something,” specifically “a distinct stage or stretch.” The dictionary’s earliest written example uses the term nautically for “the course and distance sailed on a single tack”:
“The Swash was under what Mrs. Budd might have called her ‘attacking’ canvas, and was close by the wind, looking on a good leg well up the harbor” (Graham’s Magazine, December 1846).
When English borrowed the word “leg” from early Scandinavian languages (lägger in Old Swedish, leggr in Old Icelandic, leg in Old Danish), it meant “the lower limb of the human body, or the part of the lower limb between the hip and the ankle,” the OED says.
The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Layamon’s Brut, a chronicle of Britain written in Middle English sometime before 1200:
“hii ȝogede hire harmes and greiþede ham-seolue breost wiþ breost bones þar crakede hii soten hire legges þe kempes weren stronge” (“They yoked their arms and crushed themselves breast to breast. Their bones cracked. They thrust out their legs. The warriors struggled fiercely”).
In the struggle, the Trojan warrior Corineus defeats the giant Gogmagog. The clash ends a battle between a group of giants and a Trojan force led by Brutus of Troy, a legendary founder of Britain.
So how did English speakers refer to their legs before the word “leg” appeared in the 12th century? The Anglo-Saxons used the word “shank” (sceanca, scanca, or scance in Old English), a noun that could mean the whole leg or just the lower part, from the knee to the ankle.
The earliest example we’ve seen for “shank” used to mean a leg is from Old English Martyrology, a collection of the lives of saints and other religious figures, written in the second half of the ninth century:
This passage is from the life of St. Victor Maurus, a Christian Moor said to have been tortured and beheaded in 303 on orders of the Roman Emperor Maximian (circa 250-310). Victor is speaking here to the guards taking him to his execution:
“cwæð he to þæm þe hine lædon secgað ge maximiane þæm casere þæt he bið to geare dead ond him beoð þa scancan forbrocen hæfdon ær þon he sy bebyrged” (“Then he said to those who were escorting him, tell Emperor Maximian that he will be dead within a year, and that his legs will be crushed before he will be buried”). Maximian retired to a life of luxury in 305, but he hanged himself five years later after being defeated in a rebellion against Emperor Constantine.