origin of ‘to pull someone’s leg’

 

De Vaartkapoen (1985 – Molenbeek, Brussels), by Tom Frantzen

De Vaartkapoen (1985 – Molenbeek, Brussels), by Tom Frantzen (born 1954)

De Vaartkapoen is the name given to the people born in Molenbeek (de vaart means the canal and kapoen means cheeky). Tom Frantzen stages a little scene on two levels: the level of the sewers, which lead into the canal, and the level of the pavement. Low down, a young rebel, the Vaartkapoen, reminiscent of a jack-in-the-box, topples over a policeman higher up, thus overthrowing his authority.

 

 

The phrase to pull someone’s leg means to deceive someone playfully, to tease someone.

It is first recorded¹ in the anonymous book Always Ready, or, Every One his Pride. A Novel. By a P. & O.² (London, 1859):

Both brothers commenced “pulling his leg” by criticising his rig [= outfit], asking him “Who his hatter was?” and politely wishing those present to “twig [= inspect] his heels;” finishing their “chaff” by begging him to oblige them with a few of his copperplate sayings.

and:

“I intend leaving as soon as possible; for I know, if I remain here, you will both spoil me by your kindness.”
“Not a bit of it,” said Ned, giving one of his hearty laughs. “I know you are pulling my leg,” continued he, “but I’ll tell you candidly what it is, Harry—we shall both miss you.”

The Scottish phrase was to draw someone’s leg. In Rhymes, Reveries, and Reminiscences (Aberdeen, 1851), the Scottish author William Anderson (1805-66) wrote:

She then grew religious, at least sic [= such] was said;
A grave leading Elder, weel [= well] gifted wi’ gab,
Was sent by the Parson wi’ her to confab.
He spak o’ the joys and rewards they’d receive,
Wha siller or gear to the temple wad leave;
He preached, an’ at last drew the auld body’s leg,
Sae the Kirk got the gatherin’s o’ our Aunty Meg.
     translation of the last four lines:
He spoke of the joys and rewards they’d receive,
Those who money or possessions to the temple would leave;
He preached, and at last befooled the old lady,
So the Kirk got the savings of our Aunty Meg.

The origin of the phrase is unclear. One explanation is that it originally referred to pulling the legs of a person that has just been hanged in order to speed up the process of asphyxiation and shorten the suffering. This practice was mentioned for example in The Belfast Commercial Chronicle (Ireland) of 6th January 1827 about the execution of one Charles Thomas White at Newgate, London, on 2nd January of that year:

His suffering was soon put an end to by the executioner pulling his legs and hanging to them.

However, this seems too sombre to explain a phrase merely denoting mild deception and teasing.

A more probable explanation is that the expression originally meant to pull, draw, that is, to withdraw, the leg(s) from under a person by tripping them up either literally (perhaps in order to rob them), or figuratively in the sense of putting them at a disadvantage to make them appear foolish.

But the following, from The Floating Dock Bermuda, a story published in The Morning Post (London) of 27th August 1869, is perhaps an indication that the phrase (which the author felt the need to explain) originally referred to pulling the leg of a sleeping person—unless, of course, he simply punned on the expression:

About two o’clock in the morning of Thursday, the 22d, when enjoying the delights of “nature’s soft nurse,” I was roused by some one entering the cabin and requesting my immediate presence on deck. It was the chief boatswain, who came in breathless haste to announce the appearance of another lunar rainbow. As there had been a good deal of chaff about the first one, and this was the same officer by whom it was seen, I at first thought he was metaphorically pulling my leg (he was actually doing so to awake me thoroughly), or, in other words, trying to impose on my innocent credulity, and hinted as much, which stirred up his virtuous indignation to an extent for which I was not at all prepared.

 

The following phrases are similar to the English to pull someone’s leg:

● German: jemanden auf den Arm nehmen, literally, to catch someone by the arm; it originally referred to children’s plays.

● Spanish: tomar el pelo a alguien, literally, to catch someone by the hair; it means to make fun of someone with feigned praises, promises or flatteries.

● French:
faire marcher quelqu’un, literally, to make someone walk, probably from the idea of sending someone on a fool’s errand,
se payer la tête de quelqu’un, literally, to treat oneself to someone’s face, that is, a discomfited face.

 

 

¹ The phrase is used in the diary of James Gallatin (entry for 3rd May 1821) but this diary, first published in 1914, is considered to be a fraud.

 

² P & O.: the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company

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