pull someone’s leg

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pull someone’s leg (idiom)
/pʊl sʌmwʌnz lɛɡ/

Meaning

  • to tease or joke with someone, often by trying to make them believe something that is not true.
  • to make fun of someone by telling them something that is not true as a playful trick.
  • to deceive someone playfully in a humorous way.
  • to kid or hoax someone in a friendly and light-hearted manner.
  • to mislead someone humorously for amusement.

Example Sentences

  1. I didn’t believe him when he said he saw a UFO; I knew he was just pulling my leg.
  2. She always pulls her brother’s leg about his fear of spiders.
  3. Are you serious about winning the lottery, or are you pulling my leg?
  4. He loves to pull his coworkers’ legs with outrageous stories.
  5. Don’t worry; he’s just pulling your leg about the surprise test.
  6. I knew she was pulling your leg about the handshake with Cristiano Ronaldo.

Origin and History

The idiom “pull someone’s leg” is commonly used to describe the act of teasing or joking with someone in a playful manner. Several theories provide insight into the origins of this phrase. By understanding these explanations and their historical contexts, we gain a deeper appreciation for the colorful expressions that enrich our daily conversations.

Theories and Beliefs

  1. Criminal Underworld of Victorian London: One prevalent theory suggests that the phrase originated in the mid-19th century in London. Thieves, particularly pickpockets, would pull at the legs of their victims to trip them, making it easier to rob them. This explanation ties the idiom to physical actions used to disorient and deceive.
  2. Public Hangings at Tyburn: Another theory posits that the phrase comes from the practice of public hangings at Tyburn in London. It was believed that by pulling on the legs of the person being hanged, one could hasten their death, thus reducing their suffering. This act, although unrelated to the modern usage of the phrase, contributes to its historical context.
  3. Beggars and Cripples: Some believe that the phrase originated from beggars who would pull on the legs of passersby to gain their attention and solicit money. This could have evolved into the notion of someone pulling your leg to get something from you deceitfully.
  4. The Diary of James Gallatin: An entry in the diary of James Gallatin, supposedly written in 1821, mentions the phrase in a context that indicates teasing. However, the authenticity of this diary has been questioned, and it is generally considered a fabricated source. The first reliable printed record appears in 1883, suggesting the phrase was already in use by that time.
  5. Religious and Mythological References: Some speculate connections to biblical stories, such as the tale of Jacob and Esau, where Jacob is said to have grasped Esau’s heel during birth. Although intriguing, these connections are more speculative and less supported by linguistic evidence.

Earliest Printed Records

The earliest credible printed record of the idiom ‘pulling someone’s leg’ is from the Ohio newspaper, The Newark Daily Advocate, in 1883. This record described the phrase as a way of indicating that someone was telling preposterous lies, thereby pulling their leg. It reads:

“His confiding nature led him to believe the tale, but it was soon clear that they were merely pulling his leg.”

The phrase “pull someone’s leg” has multiple folklores regarding its origin, each contributing a piece to its rich historical puzzle. Whether it was born from the antics of Victorian pickpockets, merciful acts at hangings, or the tricks of beggars, the idiom has firmly rooted itself in the English language as a way to describe playful deception.

Synonyms

  • tease; joke; kid; hoax; mislead playfully.

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