knowyourphrase.com - Common Phrases and Idioms - Meanings and Origins
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Used to describe anything that is considered extremely expensive; excessively pricey.
If a person thinks the cost of something is unreasonably high, theymight use this common idiom to describe the price.
The origins for this phrase are unclear, but word has it that this saying
originated from the early 20th century, during one of the major World Wars.
The common theory is that soldiers, because of their heavy involvement in war and being in the line of enemy fire, would sometimes lose a hand, foot, leg, or arm. When returning home and reuniting with their concerned families, obviously the first thing a loving relative would recognize is any missing limbs. Thus, if anything were missing, a member of the family might acknowledge the high price paid during the war, and say something along the lines of: "You're alive and well, but this war cost you a leg!"
And so the saying we use today is said to originate from something like that, but really, I don't believe there is any way to prove this for a certainty.
However, what is certain, is that the phrase can be found in old newspapers going back to at least the 1950s. For example, in the comic section of the Long Beach Independent newspaper, 1951, a narrator from one of the comics says:
"It cost them an arm and a leg to fix up a rumpus room for junior!"
Reference: newspaperarchive contained a digital copy of the newspaper with the expression in the quote above.
* Buying a brand new car is going to cost us an arm and a leg... maybe we should save money by riding a bike or the bus to work.
* Dan, there's absolutely no possible way for us to afford this procedure, but if you still want to go through with it, you should know that it's going to cost us an arm and a leg.
Note: Tracking the idiom origins, or the history of particular expressions, usually results in them being found written in old books, poems, or newspapers. Typically, the origins are older than these references, but regardless, these phrases will still be quoted in order to give you an idea on how long ago a phrase was used.
The history of expressions are often unclear, and in such cases, a few of the popular theories surrounding them will be given. Sometimes, I'll even toss in a plausible guess as to its history or how it may have potentially formed. My intentions here are to give you a better understanding into a phrase's origins, and a comprehendible definition as to what these sayings mean.