On their glass legs

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From Levana Taylor:

The Ithaca Times [Josh Brokaw, "First Black Frat Gets Historical Status", 4/9/2015) quotes someone speaking about a dilapidated house that his organization wants to buy and restore: "It’s really on a glass leg right now, especially after this especially severe winter.” I wonder whether the guy really said “on a glass leg” or whether the reporter misheard “on its last leg(s)”

In cases like this, my rule of thumb is "blame the journalist". This is not because of any animus towards the profession, but because if the journalist knew better, I'd expect them to correct the quotation, or (if they don't mind embarrassing the person quoted) to add "(sic)" or the equivalent.

As Levana notes, "on a glass leg" has no other relevant google hits. The only perhaps-relevant expression I can find is via web search:

[link] Nothing but a flimsy friendship, currently shaking on its glass legs because of my slippery disappearances, my lies and excuses.

On the other hand, "on its|her|his|their last legs" doesn't really make compositional sense. We don't say of a tired swimmer that she's on her last arms, or of a weary reader that he's on his last eyes. So it's surprising that there aren't more "last legs" based eggcorns.



  1. Bruce Rusk said,

    April 11, 2015 @ 8:26 pm

    If they do save the house on a glass leg, it will be a real Cinderella story.

  2. AntC said,

    April 12, 2015 @ 3:22 am

    People who live in houses on glass legs shouldn't stow thrones; the weight could crush 'em.

    There is Baba Yaga's hut on fowls' legs — Russian folk tale http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baba_Yaga.

  3. BlueLoom said,

    April 12, 2015 @ 7:42 am

    Even tho the expression isn't "on a glass leg," it should be. What a wonderful image for a house that's badly in need of being restored. I'm not a Twitter user, but maybe we need #onaglassleg to get the ball rolling (so to speak) for this charming and useful expression.

  4. DaveK said,

    April 12, 2015 @ 1:43 pm

    I wonder if there isn't some mental conflation of "glass jaw" with "last legs".

  5. DaveK said,

    April 12, 2015 @ 1:44 pm

    I wonder if there isn't some mental conflation of "glass jaw" with "last legs".

  6. Jonathan said,

    April 12, 2015 @ 6:57 pm

    My wife coined (or so she claims) the trope: "My feet are on their last legs."

  7. Q. Q. Switcheroo said,

    April 12, 2015 @ 8:21 pm

    I still remember how disappointed I was to learn that the main character of Matt Christopher's young-adult novel "Catcher with a Glass Arm" did not have a glass arm.

  8. Faith said,

    April 12, 2015 @ 9:06 pm

    In Yiddish you say something weak or faltering walks on chicken's legs. I always thought that made a lot more sense than "last legs" which are–what exactly?

  9. Alyssa said,

    April 13, 2015 @ 9:50 am

    Doesn't "legs" in this expression refer to the legs of a journey/race, not to the body part? It makes a lot more sense that way. Something that is "on its last legs" would be something that is almost at the end of its journey, and is starting to run out of steam…

  10. KeithB said,

    April 13, 2015 @ 10:41 am

    Well, there is this guy:

  11. Jim said,

    April 13, 2015 @ 10:52 am

    It's less, "These are your final legs," and more, "These legs have met their end." More like, "get them while they last, oh, wait, we've run out," than anything serial.

  12. AnthonyB said,

    April 13, 2015 @ 10:54 am

    Interesting confirmation of the velarization of initial /l/ in (probably American) English. Without it, there'd be no [g] cue in the l/ of "last" (assuming what was intended was "last legs"). In British initial /l/, for example, this confusion is not easily imaginable.

  13. julie lee said,

    April 13, 2015 @ 11:49 am

    I've heard and used the expression "The car was on its last legs."

  14. Q. Q. Switcheroo said,

    April 13, 2015 @ 5:47 pm

    "Doesn't "legs" in this expression refer to the legs of a journey/race, not to the body part?"

    "Noises Off" has a joke to that effect: "…our long and highly successful tour is on its very last legs. Its very last leg."

  15. julie lee said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 12:06 pm

    @Alyssa, @Q.Q.Switcheroo,

    Thanks, I never thought of it as the last legs or last leg of a journey. "Last legs" always struck me as physical legs. Of course legs or leg of a journey would make sense.

  16. speranza said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 12:30 pm

    My wife uses this idiom in the singular — "on its last leg" — and I don't imagine she's the only one. If the speaker in question does this too, then "its last" -> "a glass" is the only error left to account for.

  17. Steve said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 3:54 pm

    Some googling turned up a website with a forum on the etymology of words, and the most persuasive explanation (to me, anyway) was that "on one's last legs" originally meant "near death / about to die". The earliest citation (which could quite possibly be antedated) is a play titled "The Old Law" dating to 1590, where a woman's husband who is (literally) about to die is so described. The expression was later used hyperbolically to mean "extremely tired". It enters a book of proverbs as an expression referring to bankruptcy in 1678, and is soon after that applied to a wide variety of things that could be used up or work out. As Jim notes above, "last" here means "near its end/nearly gone", while "legs" is a metonym for strength/vitality/life. Thus, on my last legs means my life has nearly been used up. Despite the form of the expression, it does not, even figuratively, involve the notion of serial pairs of legs.

    The "last leg of a journey" idea makes intuitive sense, but per etymonline that sense of "leg" didn't alpear until 1920, so it cannot be the origin of an expression dating to 1590 (and possibly earlier). ("Leg of a journey" is apparently itself an extension of a somewhat older sailing usage regarding the distance sailed on a single "tack", but THAT sense only dates to the 1860s, so it is still too recent to be the underlying metaphor behind "last legs".)

  18. julie lee said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 5:36 pm


    Thanks. I've always understood "on its last legs" to mean "near death/near its end"".

  19. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    April 18, 2015 @ 5:39 pm

    @AnthonyB: I don't think initial /l/ is velarized in American English, either. But note that the substitution is not "last legs" → "glass legs", but rather "its last legs" → "a glass legs", so we've got two other consonants in which to seek the source of the [g].

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