You might have heard of several idioms involving human extremities. Break a leg or shake a leg or not having a leg to stand on. However, debunking a case of leg pulling does not involve pulling any fingers. Serious leg pulling means you've been playfully deceiving others by telling outrageous stories with a straight face or spoofing them with a lighthearted gag. Imagine my surprise when I read in pukesick's that it was a phrase from the underworld. This colloquial idiom is a really bizarre example of a popular saying that means more than just the words it contains.

The idiom dates from the late 19th century stemming from pulling one's leg in order to trip them making them fall and then committing some kind of trick or robbing the person. In Scotland by the early 1900's it carried a similar meaning except it was missing the lighthearted touch it has today. Back then it meant to make a fool of the person by outright cheating. A more grisly and somewhat plausisble theory that some experts dismiss comes from executions by hangings. As the story goes; to shorten up the suffering sometimes family members would pull the soon to be deceased legs.

In England the phrase takes a slight twist. The phrase is usually, "don't pull my leg" in a good humored manner, meaning to stop playing a joke on them; to stop telling fibs and to tell the truth. One person tells:

    The origin is found in a Scottish rhyme in which "draw" is used in the sense of "pull" rather than the word itself. It goes:

    He preached, and at last drew the auld body's leg,
    Sae the Kirk got the gatherins o' our Aunty Meg.

    The suggestion in the rhyme is that Aunty Meg was hung for a crime and, at the end, the preacher pulled on her legs to ensure that she was dead. The rather more sombre overtones of this possibility than are apparent in the British use of the phrase are mirrored in the American usage, where there is much more a feeling of trickery and deception when the saying is used.

Since the idiom dates from the late 1800's and long after the technology of hanging had rendered such gruesome embellishments unnecessary. "The more likely source is the practice of street thieves tripping their victims as a prelude to robbing them. To "pull someone's leg" thus meant to trick, disorient and confuse a person."

The common expression appears in other places in the world. If a native Spanish speaker were to exclaim, "You’re taking my hair!" or " ¡Me estás tomando el pelo! It's equivalent to the same idiom, "You’re pulling my leg!" The French say: Tu te paies ma tete!, translated it means, You're treating yourself to my head!and Germans say it like this, Du willst mich wohl auf den Arm nehmen! or literally, You want to take me up the arm!

Leg pulling is global. The best one I ever witnessed was accompanying a foreign exchange student to the court house to help him understand how to get through all of the red tape and pay a parking fine. When he went before the judge he explained his dilemma arose from a misunderstanding. Seeing the word EXPIRED on the parking meter he looked it up in his dictionary and it said to breathe one's last breath or die. The judge got a good laugh and the student got out of the ticket.

Sources:

Take Our Word For It:
www.takeourword.com/

Pulling my leg:phrases.shu.ac.uk

Word Detective:
www.word-detective.com

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