Shake a Leg – Meaning, Uses, Examples and Origin

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Shake a leg is an idiom that means to hurry up or to start moving quickly. This idiom, which has been in use for over 200 years, has its roots in the nautical language.

Idioms like shake a leg are words and phrases that have taken on a figurative definition different from their literal meaning. They are commonly used within informal English speech patterns and are essential to learn and recognize to help master the nuances of the English language.

This article will explore the idiom’s figurative and literal meaning, origin, variations and synonyms, misinterpretations, and use in modern English. So, keep reading to understand what shake a leg means and how to apply it to your material. 

Shake a Leg Meaning Uses Examples and Origin

What Does the Idiom Shake a Leg Mean?

The idiom shake a leg means to hurry up or move faster. It’s frequently utilized in conversation to encourage someone to speed up their actions or to prompt them to get started on a task.

Cambridge Dictionary says that shake a leg is “used to tell someone to hurry or act more quickly.” Merriam-Webster further explains that when used concerning speed, the idiom means “to proceed or move quickly.” 

This idiom reflects the dynamism and color in the English language, showcasing how figurative expressions can enrich communication and convey urgency or importance without using literal terms.

Literal Meaning

The literal meaning of shaking a leg describes the actual physical movement of picking up your leg and shaking it. This is a movement you might make to deter a bug or animal, to help shake a pant cuff loose, or to shake dirt or mud from your shoe.

Figurative Meaning

The figurative meaning of shake a leg is to express that someone needs to hurry up or to get going. Shake a leg is usually used as an imperative, which is a grammatical construct used for commands or requests. 

In this case, you would use shake a leg to indicate your impatience or to encourage a need to get a move on. It is often used in informal or casual conversations to encourage promptness, activity, or engagement.

The second meaning of shake a leg is to dance, presumably having evolved from the terms shake a heel or shake a foot, which were popular terms meaning to dance in the 1660s.

Variations

Here are some variations of the idiom shake a leg:

  • Start shaking a leg
  • Shakes a leg
  • Don’t shake a leg
  • To shake a leg
  • Better shake a leg

How Is Shake a Leg Commonly Used in Context?

If you need help with how to use the expression, consider the following examples of usage to help you understand how it fits into the context of a sentence.

What Are the Different Ways to Use Shake a Leg?

The phrase shake a leg can be used in various situations to encourage someone to hurry up, get moving, or start an activity. Here are different ways to use the expression:

  • Urging someone to hurry: Come on, shake a leg! We’re running late for the meeting.
  • Prompting action or initiation: The party is about to start. Let’s shake a leg and get the music playing.
  • Encouraging someone to wake up or get out of bed: Time to shake a leg and start the day.
  • Motivating someone: Wear your workout clothes and shake a leg at the gym.
  • Prompting someone to take action: There’s an opportunity waiting for you; shake a leg and seize it!
  • Encouraging dancers to start moving: The music is playing, so shake a leg and show off your dance moves!
  • Motivating someone to get involved or participate: Don’t just sit there; shake a leg and contribute to the discussion.

Where Can You Find Examples of Shake a Leg?

You can find examples of the phrase shake a leg in various forms of media, including literature, movies, song lyrics, and everyday conversations. It is usually used in informal or casual situations with people you are already familiar with. 

  • Books and literature
  • Movies and TV shows
  • Song lyrics
  • Websites, blogs, and social media platforms 
  • Everyday conversations

These examples are from modern newspapers, online journals, and social media referring to casual and relaxed situations:

  • … he would’ve been in that driver’s seat honking for me to “shake a leg” or we were going to miss the first showing of “Planet of the Apes” at the Moonlite Drive In. (Sunday Dispatch)
  • Actor Upen Patel, who will shake a leg with his girlfriend Karishma Tanna in the upcoming dance-based reality show ‘Nach Baliye 7,’ says it’s a great chance for him to “emote romance.” (The Indian Express)

What Are Some Tips for Using Shake a Leg Effectively?

Remember, effective communication involves not only using the right words but also considering the context, audience, and appropriate delivery to ensure your message is understood. To use the phrase shake a leg effectively, consider the following tips:

  • Context is important: Shake a leg is commonly used in informal or casual settings among friends, family, or colleagues, but it may not be suitable for formal or professional situations.
  • Tone and delivery: Use an encouraging tone when using the expression to motivate or prompt someone. 
  • Non-verbal cues: Accompany the phrase with appropriate non-verbal cues, such as gesturing or a sense of urgency in your actions.
  • Know your audience: Some individuals may not be familiar with the idiom, so gauge their understanding and adjust your language accordingly.
  • Consider alternatives: If you’re unsure about using shake a leg, consider more straightforward phrases like hurry or get going to communicate your message clearly.

What Is the Origin of the Idiom Shake a Leg?

Shake a Leg Ngram
Shake a leg usage trend.

Even though the expression shake a leg is commonly believed to be a late 19th-century or early 20th-century phrase, it is actually much older than that. 

Salty Dog Talk: The Nautical Origins of Everyday Expressions is a book of idiomatic phrases and various slang terms influenced by life aboard sailing vessels. Published in 1995, the book claims shake a leg is a natural variation of show a leg, meaning to “make a move or get started,” dating as far back as Napoleonic times (early 1800s) or even later. 

During the 1700s and 1800s, especially during times of conflict, men were pressed into naval 

service, and shore leave was nearly impossible to get. The men were allowed women visitors (many times their wives and girlfriends as well as prostitutes) to help keep them from deserting. When at the dock, it has been recorded that as many as 500 women might be entertained aboard one ship. 

In the morning, when it was time for the men to get to work, show a leg was shouted to “get out of bed and get moving.” This was a demand to push your bare leg out from the blankets. The curvy, feminine legs were allowed to stay put, while the hairy men’s legs gave the sailors away. 

How Did the Idiom Evolve Over Time?

Even though most idioms evolve from understandable literal uses, shake a leg has been very idiomatic since its inception. 

The expression took on the meaning “to dance” around the mid-1800s, documented in various sources. For example, the Dubuque Democratic Herald from October 1863 advertised a local ball with the heading, “Nearly every man in town able to shake a leg has purchased a ticket.”

This use is synonymous with getting moving, simply in another manner than having to hurry along. 

What Are Some Related Terms, Words, and Idioms to Shake a Leg?

We’ve listed the common synonyms, antonyms, and other phrases that can help you better understand the use of the idiom shake a leg.

Shake a Leg Meaning Uses Examples and Origin 1

Synonyms

These expressions emphasize the need for speed or prompt action.

  • Hurry up
  • Get a move on
  • Step on it
  • Speed up
  • Bust a move
  • Quick, quick
  • Pick up the pace
  • Move it
  • Haul ass
  • Chop chop
  • Make haste
  • Snap to it
  • Fasten your pace
  • Be quick about it
  • Put some pep in your step

Related Terms and Phrases

Here are phrases and words related to the idiom shake a leg. These terms share a contextual relationship with the idiom but do not necessarily have the same meaning:

  • Time management
  • Alacrity
  • Punctuality
  • Efficiency
  • Quick response
  • Promptness
  • Expediency
  • Swift action
  • Agility

Antonyms

These terms suggest a more relaxed approach, emphasizing a slower pace rather than a sense of urgency or haste.

  • Take your time
  • Move at a leisurely pace
  • Go at a slow speed
  • Proceed at a relaxed tempo
  • Take it easy
  • Linger
  • Dally
  • Amble
  • Saunter
  • Stroll

Misinterpretations

The following misinterpretations of the idiom shake a leg can occur if it is taken out of context or when the audience is unfamiliar with the expression:

  • Literal interpretation: Taking the phrase literally could lead to confusion or humorous situations. 
  • Dancing-related confusion: Due to the phrase’s similarity to dance-related actions, it can be mistakenly associated solely with dancing. 
  • Insensitivity to physical limitations: In some cases, the phrase may be misinterpreted as disregarding physical limitations or disabilities. 
  • Overemphasis on speed: Focusing solely on the aspect of speed can lead to disregarding the importance of a balanced perspective and not rushing without proper consideration.
Shake a Leg: Test Your Knowledge!

Shake a Leg: Test Your Knowledge!

Choose the correct answer.

What does the idiom “shake a leg” mean?
Which of the following is a synonym for “shake a leg”?
Is “shake a leg” a formal or informal expression?
True or False: “Shake a leg” encourages someone to take their time.
Can “shake a leg” be used metaphorically in non-physical contexts?
Start Over

Let’s Review

Shake a leg is an idiom expressing urgency or the need to move quickly. With deep roots in nautical language and over 200 years of usage, its versatility is demonstrated through various synonyms and variations.
Understanding idioms like shake a leg aids in mastering English, as they add richness to informal speech. Recognizing and correctly applying this idiom can enhance one’s grasp of the nuanced English language.

Want to have more idioms in your arsenal? Check out some others we covered: