shake a leg: Idiom Meaning and Origin

What does ‘shake a leg’ mean?

The idiom "shake a leg" means to hurry up or get moving quickly, typically used as a command or request to someone who is taking too long or being slow. Its origin is uncertain.

Idiom Explorer


The idiom "shake a leg" has been widely used in the English language for many years, and it carries a unique and intriguing meaning. While its origin remains somewhat mysterious, there are a few facts that we can establish with certainty.

First and foremost, "shake a leg" is an idiomatic expression that is commonly used to urge someone to hurry up or to encourage them to move quickly. It is often used in an informal or playful context and is not meant to be taken literally. The phrase can be directed at an individual or a group of people, and it conveys a sense of urgency and the need for immediate action.

One widely accepted theory about the origin of this idiom suggests that it originated in the world of dance. In the early 20th century, dance halls and theaters often had live orchestras that provided the music for the performances. When it was time for certain dancers to go on stage or to begin their routine, they would be prompted to "shake a leg" by the conductor or stage manager. This instruction served as a signal for them to start moving and to begin their performance.

Another possible explanation for the origin of this idiom is derived from the world of sailing. In nautical terminology, the phrase "shake a leg" is used to urge sailors to get out of their hammocks and start their duties. This sense of urgency and swift action required in a maritime environment could have influenced the idiom's usage in everyday language.

While these theories provide some insight into the possible origins of "shake a leg," it must be noted that there is no definitive evidence to support any one explanation. As with many idiomatic expressions, the true origin may remain elusive.

Despite its uncertain origins, "shake a leg" has become deeply ingrained in the English language and is widely understood by native speakers. Its usage extends beyond the realms of dance and sailing, and it has become a versatile phrase that can be applied in various contexts.

Today, "shake a leg" is used in both informal and formal settings to encourage promptness, urge someone to hurry up, or to express a sense of excitement and readiness. It is a lively and dynamic idiom that adds color and vibrancy to conversation.

One related idiom is "get a wiggle on." This phrase is similar to "shake a leg" and is also used to encourage someone to hurry up or to move quickly. It adds a playful and informal tone to the conversation, and it can be used interchangeably with "shake a leg" in most contexts.

Another related idiom is "step on it." This expression is often used in a more urgent and direct manner than "shake a leg." It implies a pressing need for immediate action or acceleration, and it is commonly used when time is of the essence.

"step lively" is yet another related idiom that conveys a sense of urgency and quick movement. It suggests that one should walk or proceed with a brisk pace, similar to the meaning of "shake a leg." The phrase is often used to encourage someone to move quickly or to keep up the pace.

In the world of performance and theater, the idiom "break a leg" is commonly used to wish someone good luck. It is believed to originate from the superstitious belief that wishing someone good luck could actually bring them bad luck. By saying "break a leg," it is akin to wishing the performer to have such a successful and energetic performance that they would have to take a bow by literally breaking a leg.

Lastly, we have "make a leg." This idiom is less commonly used than the others mentioned, but it shares a similar meaning of urging someone to take action or to get moving. It can be used as an alternative to "shake a leg" or "get a wiggle on" in certain situations, adding variety to one's language.

So, the next time you hear someone say "shake a leg," remember its historical links to dance and sailing, but also embrace its modern-day usage as a versatile expression that embodies urgency, enthusiasm, and the need for immediate action. And don't forget to also consider the related idioms "get a wiggle on," "step on it," "step lively," "break a leg," and "make a leg" to add more vibrancy to your conversations and writing.

Example usage

1. "Come on, we're running late! Shake a leg or we'll miss the bus!"

2. "The coach yelled at the team to shake a leg during practice, urging them to move faster."

3. "I need you to shake a leg and start working on that report right away."

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