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What Does the Scary Phrase 'An Arm and a Leg' Actually Mean?

What Does the Phrase 'An Arm and a Leg' Mean?
The phrase 'an arm and a leg' is quite commonly used in our day-to-day language, and is sometimes a source of amusement for those who don't know what it exactly means. This Penlighten post gives you the meaning, origin, and some examples of this popular idiom.
Vrinda Varnekar
Last Updated: Oct 20, 2018
It's Universal!
English isn't the only language to use a phrase that sounds darkly amusing in its literal sense. In French, a phrase similar to an arm and a leg exists― Ça coûte les yeux de la tête, which can be translated to something along the lines of It costs the eyes in your head.
"Oh no, I'm not buying you that, it'd cost me an arm and a leg." How many times have you heard this one phrase from, say your parents, whenever you asked them for a particularly awesome (and expensive) toy when you were a kid?
It is one of the most frequently-used idioms in the English language, an idiom whose literal meaning actually makes it sound quite gory. It does seem rather unfair to lose an arm and a leg in return for something, 'cause let's face it, we'd prefer to keep our arms and legs and not exchange them for anything, no matter how great the deal is.
Fortunately, an arm and a leg is an idiom, which means that it is a phrase that should not be understood in its literal sense as it means something else altogether. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an idiom as an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own.
Most of us use idioms very frequently, without even realizing it. Take, for instance, a penny for your thoughts or once in a blue moon An integral part of our spoken language, aren't they? The following sections will cover the meaning, origin and examples of an equally popular phrase―an arm and a leg.
If we try to understand this phrase in its literal sense, an arm and a leg sounds pretty painful. Though what it actually means is not this gory, it is rather painful too, in a different way. How, you ask? An arm and a leg actually means extremely or excessively expensive, even exorbitantly expensive.
This idiom is generally used to describe something in terms of its cost, when the cost is extremely high, and almost not affordable and you have to part with a large portion of your resources to be able to afford it.
When something costs an arm and a leg, it could be considered as expensive as actually parting with your arm and leg. This idiom is used to describe difficult situations too, though not as commonly.
Possible Origin
There are many theories that state the origin of this phrase, and unfortunately, we do not know which is the exact one. However, all these theories are an interesting read in themselves and are worth considering, which is why we've compiled them for you in this section.
✦ The most common perception about the origin of this idiom dates back several centuries. Portrait painters in the older days supposedly charged the least for portraits of only the head and shoulders of the subject.
If the subject chose, he could get a larger portrait made with his arms and legs included, the price of which would increase as the number of limbs to be included in the portrait increased. So this perception states that artists charged by the limb. However, there is no concrete evidence for this theory.
✦ Another theory states that this idiom originated from either of the World Wars, where the heavy war conditions and constant violence would often lead to soldiers losing their arms, legs, or both. Fighting in the war and being in the line of fire came with a price, and a rather heavy one at that.
In the literal sense, violence and wars could cost a person his arms and legs, which is an unreasonable and exorbitant price. Again, this is simply a theory and no concrete evidence can be found of the same.
✦ An article in a magazine published in 1790 too could possibly be the origin of this phrase, according to experts.
The Lady's Magazine: Or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex, Appropriated Solely to Their Use and Amusement says, "This is my sole desire-my only passion; and in order to gratify it, I would give my right arm, and my entire fortune." So, it is possible that this phrase could have simply evolved out of an old saying.
An arm and a leg has also been quite frequently used by the Long Beach Independent newspaper in the years after WWII. Other newspapers and magazines too, over the years, have used this phrase before it became a common and embedded element in the spoken English language.
An old couple is out shopping.

Old woman (to her husband): This hat is lovely, but I'm sure it costs an arm and a leg!
Old man: Don't worry about the price! Let's buy it for you.
Buying a house in the suburbs is going to cost us an arm and a leg. We'd better start using the bus or the subway to save the money we spend on gas.
Couple looking at diamond ring
That's a beautiful ring! Have you noticed how the diamond sparkles? It must have cost her fiancé an arm and a leg.
Don't hurt yourself while skiing, we can't afford going to the doctor here. It costs a tourist an arm and a leg to get medical treatment in a foreign country.
Literal meanings of idioms, Cost an arm an a leg
You shouldn't have spent an arm and a leg on your old car. It would have been wiser to get a new one.
So that was all about one of the most popularly used idioms today. The next time you find something too expensive, don't forget to say "Oh my god, they're charging us an arm and a leg for this?", and watch everyone gape at you with wonder!