An Arm and a Leg – Idiom, Meaning & Origin

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

There’s no denying that some things in life are just plain expensive, especially nowadays. For those particular pricey items or experiences, I’ve got a colorful idiom you can use that depicts a fairly jarring image. It costs an arm and a leg.

But this expression has nothing to do with dismemberment, thankfully, but it certainly has a lot to do with high costs. Let’s dissect this phrase and see what it’s all about!

An Arm and a Leg Meaning Explained

An Arm and a Leg Idiom Meaning Origin

The idiomatic phrase an arm and a leg is pretty common in English, and we use it to describe something extremely expensive. If something costs an arm and a leg, it’s so pricey that you might have to give up a lot of your resources (though not literal body parts) to afford it.

Whether it’s a posh dinner at an Italian Michelin-starred restaurant or a rare piece of artwork at an auction, if it’s going to empty your wallet, it’s definitely going to cost you an arm and a leg.

Origin and Etymology of the Phrase an Arm and a Leg

The exact origin of this phrase isn’t definite, but it’s said to have surfaced during the mid-20th century in America, pretty much right after the second world war. One theory suggests that it might have been derived from the world of art, where paintings missing arms and legs (due to age or damage) were less valuable than those in perfect condition.

One of the oldest examples in print is from a publication called The Long Beach Independent, in 1949, “Food Editor Beulah Karney has more than 10 ideas for the homemaker who wants to say ‘Merry Christmas’ and not have it cost her an arm and a leg.”

Cost an Arm and a Leg Synonyms

  • Cost a fortune
  • Break the bank
  • Pay through the nose
  • Cost the earth
  • Cost a pretty penny

An Arm and a Leg Examples in a Sentence

An Arm and a Leg Idiom Meaning Origin 1
  • That designer dress Amy wore at the party this weekend must have cost an arm and a leg.
  • Getting my junky car repaired ended up costing me an arm and a leg.
  • They say money can’t buy happiness, but apparently, it can buy a yacht that costs an arm and a leg.
  • The rare first-edition copy of “A Court of Thorns and Roses” cost an arm and a leg at the online auction, but it was worth it.
  • The holiday season can end up costing an arm and a leg if you don’t plan your spending carefully.
  • For small businesses, paying for advertising on prime-time television can cost an arm and a leg.

Pinch Those Pennies

Now that you’ve got a handle on the phrase an arm and a leg, you’re all set to make your conversations a little richer and your descriptions more vivid. Remember to keep your arms and legs intact, no matter how costly the metaphorical price tag might be!