Has it Got Legs?
Here is a riddle for you: What goes ninety-nine CLOP, ninety-nine CLOP, ninety-nine CLOP…? Answer: A centipede with a wooden leg.
I don’t want to go into all the biological reasons concerning the numerous varieties of centipedes, showing that, even apart from the wooden leg, this story can’t be true. What I do want to do is introduce the subject of LEGS. Most of us anthropoids are bipedal, i.e. we have two of them, having, at some point on the evolutionary scale, stood up, and begun using our forefeet as hands (yes, I know it’s not quite as simple as that).
My title, of course, refers to the journalistic or public-relations idea that a story may or may not have enough human-interest value to be capable of enduring beyond its ephemeral status as news.
Anyway, legs have many different kinds of significance in our culture, not only being featured in many of our idioms, e.g. not having a leg to stand on; doing the leg work; getting your sea legs; or pulling somebody’s leg. But there is also their role as an item of sexual attraction. This, of course, applies, at least nowadays, to women’s legs, which, in men’s minds, tend to be rated on a scale of shapeliness. I never knew its origin, but, among my parents’ household possessions, was a nutcracker in the form of a pair of female legs. There could hardly be a more suggestive item than that.
But it was not long ago, historically, that the very idea of legs was considered potentially ruinous to susceptible minds. Unfortunately, the story that our Victorian ancestors used to cover their table- and piano-legs with little “skirts,” out of an exaggerated sense of modesty is purely a myth. But it is certainly true that, until the twentieth century, fashions invariably decreed that every visible part of a woman’s legs be at least discreetly covered, if not completely hidden from view.
You may know that the garment now known as “bloomers” owes its name to Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894), a leader in the American movement for women’s rights. But the idea that bloomers were a primitive form of what we now call “panties” is grievously mistaken. In fact, although they may have been considered an advance in women’s wear, giving more freedom of movement, the bloomered legs were still completely covered, with not an inch of flesh visible.
Things had changed a great deal, however, by the time Cole Porter wrote his song “Anything Goes,” with its snickering lyric:
In olden days, a hint of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
Now, heaven knows,
Then there was the notorious gangster of about that same era, known as Jack “Legs” Diamond. The nickname is thought to have derived either from his being a good dancer, or from his skill at escaping pursuit. (He was jailed two years for deserting the Army in World War 1.) His violent career ended in 1931 when he was shot by some of his many enemies.
And little more than a decade later, in World War II, the legs of actress Betty Grable became so famous, particularly through a widely circulated “pin-up” picture (photographed from the rear, incidentally, because at the time she was pregnant) that, as a publicity stunt, her studio insured them for one million dollars.
In view of such facts, it seems strange to recall that, in times past, even as far back as Shakespeare’s era, it was men whose legs were rated on their shapeliness. Thus, we find this line in Twelfth Night (Act 2 Scene 3): “I would rather have a shapely leg like the fool’s, and his sweet voice, than forty shillings.”
And, while we are in a theatrical setting, let’s not forget that traditional Good Luck message to an actor, to “break a leg!” – a superstition based on some crazy reverse logic that this will make anything bad less likely to happen.
But another significant function of our nether appendages is their capacity to bend, sometimes symbolically, in the act of kneeling, which, depending on circumstances, can express reverence, respect, pleading, or surrender. Half-kneeling (or “taking a knee”), instead of standing, for the National Anthem has recently come to be a form of political expression.
Having begun this piece with a silly leg joke, I might as well finish up with another one: Have you heard the story of the limping nun? – Hopalong Chastity.