“Pull Someone’s Leg” – Phrase Origin

Are you familiar with the phrase “I’m not pulling your leg?” Though it may be hard to determine its exact origin, written documents suggest that this phrase has been around for over a century.

The phrase “pull someone’s leg” possibly originated from the Scottish phrase “to draw one’s leg” and was first used in 1883. Documents suggest that “to pull someone’s leg” could have gotten its meaning from literally tripping someone or waking up sleeping passengers by pulling their legs.

Let’s dive into this detective work and find out who were the original leg-pullers. We’ll discuss late 19th-century texts and try to make sense of the phrase. We’ll discover what pulling someone’s leg has to do with being playful or deceitful.

The Etymology of the Phrase “Pull Someone’s Leg”

The earliest form of the phrase “pull someone’s leg” is believed to be of Scottish origin. According to a dictionary titled “Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins,” pulling someone’s leg first appeared as a phrase in the 1880s, most probably in 1883. The original wording was “to draw one’s leg,” while the verb “draw” was synonymous with “pull” and “tug.”

We can read evidence of this phrase being used in literature in 1883. A Scottish poet and railway inspector, William Aitken, uses the expression in his railway poems, “The Lays of the Line.” One of the poems titled Sawney M’Graw contains the following line, “Nae maitter hoo sairly his leg ye micht draw, Ye will ne’er howk a quarrel oot o’ Sawney M’Graw..” 

The person in the poem, Mr. M’Graw, is described as being peaceful, and regardless of how hard or painfully you may pull his leg, he will never be the one to get angry or fight. The meaning of “draw a leg” is more malicious than the one we know and use in modern times. It meant “to trick or befool” someone and is now obsolete in the Scottish language.

Pulling Someone’s Leg To Trip Them

Another theory says that “pulling one’s leg” comes from literally tripping a person over. The idea is that when someone loses balance, they get confused and look very foolish. This explanation makes sense considering that the meaning of the phrase is playing a trick or fooling someone. 

The book “American Heritage: Dictionary of Idioms” has an entry in favor of the theory that “pulling someone’s leg” is derived from tripping someone over. According to this entry, the phrase refers to tripping someone by holding a stick and pulling one of their legs back. The origin is also thought to be the late 1880s.

The reason for tripping someone could also be ill intent. It is believed that thieves would pull people’s legs and take advantage of the confusion to steal their possessions. The exact place and time of origin of this behavior are unknown.

Tripping someone over by “pulling their leg” makes sense because it shows the dual meaning of the phrase. One is quite jolly, meaning to playfully trip someone over and play a trick on them. The other one means to make someone fall and take advantage of their position to steal from them. This relates to the “to deceive” meaning of the phrase.

Pulling the Leg of a Sleeping Person

Imagine being a train passenger in the 1880s and falling asleep during your trip. Other people with you are supposed to wake you up once you arrive at your destination. However, some may feel playful and pull your leg too soon. Your response to this trick would probably be, “Are you pulling my leg right now?’

At first, it might seem like a long shot to connect the phrase’s origin with waking someone up. However, according to an online etymology dictionary, pulling one’s leg was a phrase used to describe a way to awaken a sleeping person in a railway compartment. This entry can be backed up using newspaper articles of the time.

In The Morning Post in 1869, there was a story named “The Floating Dock Bermuda.” In the text, a character is called to witness a lunar rainbow and says, “I was roused by someone 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.”

Since it is a truly unusual sight, he uses the phrase “pulling my leg” to show his disbelief at witnessing this rarity. “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).” In brackets, the author explains that “pulling someone’s leg” was usually done to wake someone. 

In The White Pine News in 1893, there is a text where pulling the leg means waking someone up. The person was hypnotized and enjoyed what he was seeing. He says, “I see a railroad depot. There are cars marked ‘L. & N. It. It.’ I am surrounded by eight or ten angels.” 

However, the doctor who put him to sleep decided to wake him up by saying, “Look here, you old scoundrel, you have been playing off on me!” exclaimed the doctor as he yanked the man off the barrel and put his hoot against him. The person then uses the phrase by saying, “…I will remember your meanness as long as I live! The idea of sending me to heaven and then pulling my leg just as the angels would get up a big purse shows what kind of a man you are!”

In the article from The White Pine News, “pulling my leg” unravels another meaning nuance. If sleeping is considered a state of mental absence, similar to having one’s head up in the clouds, then pulling the leg is one way to wake someone up or take them down to Earth. Possibly, joking with someone can be considered a way to keep the person grounded.

The Earliest Documented Use of the Phrase “Pull Someone’s Leg”

We can assume the approximate year of origin of the phrase by looking into written documents. Several sources point to the year 1883 as the year of origin. In The Salt Lake Herald from 1883, there is a text where pulling the leg is mentioned figuratively, “The Chinese giant once told me he had half a dozen wives at home, but I think he was pulling my leg.”

In a newspaper called The Newark Daily Advocate, a person states, “It is now the correct thing to say that a man who has been telling you preposterous lies has been ‘pulling your leg.’” This newspaper piece originates from 1883. The fact that the writer needed to explain the phrase’s meaning suggests that it was fairly new at the time. It is safe to say that “pulling your leg” originated in the early 1880s.

In 1899, in the Deseret evening news, we can read an article discussing some strange places in London. The writer says, “Possibly the park keeper may have indulged in the Western pastime commonly known among vulgar youth as ‘pulling my leg,’ but he…could never lie.” 

It is fascinating to read evidence of how fresh the phrase sounded to people at the end of the 19th century. Moreover, this goes to show that the phrase “pull someone’s leg” was considered to be colloquial. It was not until 1940 that it became a part of standard English.

Final Thoughts

It is always interesting to read how a phrase came to be. This century-old phrase is way past its heyday. Pulling someone’s leg might not be young people’s first choice of words when they feel tricked. However, it does show the fantastic linguistic transformation of phrases from literal to figurative.

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