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What Does “Cost An Arm And A Leg Mean” How To Use It

What Does “Cost An Arm And A Leg Mean” How To Use It

One of the most popular phrases among people and that is used with wide frequency is “cost an arm and a leg”, and in case you have any little doubt about its meaning, origin, or use, this article will try to clarify all this and much more.

The meaning of “Cost an arm and a leg” is nothing more than a way of referring to something that is exaggeratedly expensive. The literal meaning of the expression is not so far from its real interpretation, and we should use it when talking about something that is costly in more ways than one.

It is interesting to observe how idiomatic expressions use different structural styles to correctly illustrate the idea they wish to convey. In the specific case of the expression “Cost an arm and a leg” it is quite evident the use of the exaggeration technique to amplify the implicit message and leave no room for doubt for the people who read or hear it.


Origin Of The Phrase “Cost An Arm And A Leg”

An idiomatic expression is an idea that is widely spread, known, and understood by most people in a region, country, and sometimes even the whole world. In everyday slang there are hundreds and hundreds of picturesque expressions that in no case should be interpreted literally because its meaning would not make any sense, only its figurative understanding will give meaning to the expression because that was the way it was really conceived at some point in history.

It is not surprising that a phrase as particular as “Cost an arm and a leg” arouses so much curiosity in everything related to its etymological origin. The phrase itself contains a high content of creativity and once it is genuinely understood, it becomes a strong demonstration of popular wisdom and culture, because only people with their real and daily experiences can elaborate an infinity of contemporary sayings that can perfectly connect and understand the prevailing feeling of society.

As with almost all expressions, sayings, or proverbs used today, the exact origin of the phrase “Cost an arm and a leg” cannot be attributed to a single source or specific historical reference. Reviewing all available documentation, one can find several origins linked to the same phrase. In addition, something unique happens with this phrase, this same phrase presents changes in its structure, components, or words depending on the country that uses it, but what remains unchanged is its original interpretation and meaning referring to everything that is exaggeratedly expensive. The curious thing is that when these variations are presented according to the location of the region or country, multiple versions of its origin and social adoption can also be found depending on this geographical variable.

The following is a review of some of the most common origins of this popular phrase.

Origin In The United States.

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It is important to clarify that even within this country you can find different origins for the same expression, so perhaps the most important thing is to know what these versions are and enjoy them as anecdotes of American popular culture.

– At some point during World War I, significant numbers of American soldiers who were in combat on the battlefield lost some of their limbs or extremities because of the countless clashes with the enemy battalion. This situation led the society of that time to express that losing an arm or a leg because of the war was an extremely high price that the soldiers had to pay for defending their country.

– Another of the origins attributed to the phrase “Cost an arm and a leg” is located at the end of World War II, where reference is made to the editor and journalist of the food section of the newspaper The Long Beach Independent, Mrs. Beulah Karney, who maintained a weekly column in the newspaper, and who is credited with the first massive use of the phrase when in December 1949 published an article where she gave 10 tips to housewives to have a merry Christmas without it costing them an arm and a leg.

– Upon further research, another origin of the expression can be found, also related to war conflicts, specifically during the American Civil War. As in the origin of the phrase that relates it to the events of World War I, this version refers to a much-discussed law debated in the American Congress where it was finally approved to grant a lifetime pension to all those soldiers who had lost their limbs or extremities during this civil war.

– Another origin of the phrase is even older. This origin is based on an Iowa – Burlington newspaper story called Daily Hawk-Eye, which occurred in July 1875. This funny origin tells of an elderly gentleman who was a subscriber to the paper, had over 5 years of receiving the paper without paying a single penny of his monthly payment, so he possessed an accumulated debt of years that over time became a significant amount of money. When the gentleman was asked why he did not pay his debt, his answer was that he did not have the money and that he had tried to end the subscription so as not to receive the newspaper anymore, but despite his attempts, he continued to receive it after more than 5 years of default, to which he ended his statement by commenting that if the editor of the newspaper wished to receive his payment he should go to his house and take his leg.

Origin In Popular Culture

Continuing the investigation of this popular phrase we can find another supposed origin that is even more diffuse and difficult to prove in comparison with those described above, and that is the colloquial story that many people know of the phrase, in this case, it cannot be attributed to any country or region. This story tells that in a distant time, painters or portrait painters of the time used to charge a lot of money for large or full-body paintings compared to what they charged for medium or small paintings or portraits. This was explained in the following way if the client wanted a portrait that included only his face and shoulders the painter gave them a very economical price, if the desire was a larger and more detailed portrait that included in addition to the face and shoulders also the arms the price to pay was higher, but if instead what was wanted was an integral or full body portrait that in addition to all the above also incorporated the legs, then the price could be exaggeratedly high, from here also follows in a much more mythological way the origin of the phrase “Cost an arm and a leg”.

How People Use This Phrase

To Express The Excessive Price Of Goods Or Services

This phrase is commonly used to express when something, whether tangible or intangible, is astronomically expensive, making it almost unattainable.

To Express The High Effort Required To Achieve A Goal

Today’s phrase although mostly used to express the high cost of things does not mean that this is its only interpretation. This idiomatic expression can also be used to illustrate the idea that the achievement of a goal or feat has meant an enormous effort on the part of its executor.

To Express An Exacerbated Sacrifice

Although it seems like the previous use, this way of using the phrase is more inclined to express the deep feeling of sacrifice that represents having gone through a certain situation.

Use Of The Phrase In Everyday Sentences


Here are some concrete examples of the use of the phrase “Cost an arm and a leg”:

  1. It cost me an arm and a leg to get my career off the ground with all the problems that have occurred.
  2. After so many negotiations with the landlord and offers and counteroffers, I finally decided not to buy that apartment, it was going to cost me an arm and a leg to raise the money to pay for it.
  3. Anyone who sees the business we have built would think it was an easy task, but no one knows that it has cost an arm and a leg to get to this point.

Additional English Idioms


This phrase stimulates the development of the imagination due to the graphism that each of its component words contributes to the sentence, not always the idiomatic expressions allow such imaginative flexibility nor are they so easily digested by almost everyone, especially taking into account that the world today is increasingly globalized and having the ability to use an expression in different countries and be understood speaks volumes about the universality of the phrase.

The phrase “cost an arm and a leg” holds great beauty because it is versatile and simple but at the same time conveys a feeling of great depth and honesty, perhaps for this reason it has become an idiomatic expression that has been adopted by so many countries, making it an irreplaceable and universal element of contemporary popular culture.

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