When something costs a lot of money, the English language has a series of terms that can be used such as expensive, high-priced, costly, pricey, etc… However, a very common idiom used to underline the sacrifice made to purchase an object calls for the involvement of limbs. Why do we say that something costs an “arm and a leg”, is it related to selling limbs? Where was the saying born and under what circumstances?
Portraying a Costly Arm and Leg
There are a couple of theories regarding this unique saying. The first relates to the art of portraits. Before the age of photography, portraits were the only way to immortalize your appearance for posterity. Unfortunately, portraits were also expensive and the cheapest way to get a portrait was to paint head and bust only. Apparently, painting the full body with arms and legs was more difficult and more expensive. According to some experts, several painters specialized in face portraits, but the proportions of the legs and arms were not their forte. Another theory is that it simply was faster to portray only the face thus it was less expensive.
The Arm and Leg Cost of Serving
The second theory is somewhat grimmer. After War World II many soldiers returned home without a limb. Many newspapers at the time described the high cost these soldiers paid while serving their country. It is possible, that a natural evolution of the language came to relate the payment of an incredibly high cost to the loss the soldiers occurred while serving their country.
Most likely, the evolution of this idiom is a combination of many different events, including the two mentioned above. The first time “it costs an arm and a leg” was written in a publication was in December 1949 in the Long Beach Independent. The editor listed 10 ideas for the homemaker that does not want to spend “an arm and a leg” for Christmas. However, similar phrases existed a century earlier in statements like “I would give my right arm for… and even a leg! (Sharpe Journal 1849). Another example in 1875 states that an editor would get his money from a man who owed him money even if it takes a leg.
The Likely Evolution of Costing Arms, Legs, and Eyes
Whatever the origin of the statement, the idea that some things are such a sacrifice to get that a part of the body is inevitably lost is a common trend among different cultures. In fact, in some other languages like Italian, Spanish, and French very expensive items cost “an eye out of my head”.