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What Does It Mean If Something Costs an Arm and a Leg?

Jeffrey L. Callicott
Jeffrey L. Callicott

The statement that something “costs an arm and a leg” is an idiomatic expression in the English language. It is a way of implying that the desired object or situation has a very high cost — of such magnitude as to be prohibitive or absurd. The saying is one of the more common idioms used in English.

The phrase finds use in several situations. It often is used to describe the price of a needed commodity or service that may not have a prohibitively high cost but a price that seems to be consistently elevated or on the rise. Many people tend to refer to gasoline as costing an arm and a leg for this reason. In many places around the world, it is possible to purchase fuel on a typical motorist's income, but it nevertheless has the reputation of being expensive.

An item of very high cost is often referred to as costing "an arm and a leg."
An item of very high cost is often referred to as costing "an arm and a leg."

On other occasions, the expression “costs an arm and a leg” is used to reference items that, in fact, do have a very high cost, so much so that they cannot be acquired except only by the richest of people and perhaps not even by them. The items referenced can be luxury items such as cars or houses that could be purchased by a wealthy person. It is possible, though, that the items being referenced simply cannot be purchased.

The origins of the phrase are somewhat unclear, although it is surmised that the “arm and a leg” theory originated during times prior to photography, when paintings were a common way of portraying people. Usually, the larger the painting, the more it would cost. The least expensive portrait would be a painting from the shoulders up but, if the person’s arms were shown, it would mean a larger painting; if the legs — and, thus, the entire body — were shown, it would be bigger still. Thus, any painting that showed a person complete with arms and legs would likely be large and, as a result, quite costly.

There is some thought about the saying having originated somewhat later, particularly during World War I. The loss of an arm or leg in that conflict was not uncommon and would certainly be considered a very high cost — though not a financial one — to a war veteran. Some speculation considers the war explanation and the loss of both an arm and a leg as particularly severe, or something that is an especially high cost.

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Discussion Comments


I've also heard a similar expression about something costing "your firstborn child". It's all the same idea-- in order to get the thing you need, you've got to be willing to sacrifice the most precious items you own, whether it's an arm or leg or home or whatever.

I've only had to pay an "arm and a leg" for something one time in my life. My dad had a fishing lure collection, and he was always talking about the one antique lore he needed to complete it. I thought it would be a great idea to search all the online auction sites and give it to him as a 70th birthday present. I finally found one of those lures for sale on a major auction site and I started bidding on it.

There must have been one or two other serious collectors that day, because the bid price started going way past the estimate. I stayed in the hunt, but things were getting really heated. I ended up winning the auction, mostly because it ran out of time. I did indeed pay an arm and a leg for that lure, but it was worth it to see the look on my dad's face when I brought it over.


I know I've said this expression hundreds of times over the years, but I don't think I've actually meant it. I'll go to the gas station and see a really high price per gallon, but it's not really going to cost me an arm and a leg. I just don't feel like paying that much for something I need in order to earn money at work and shop at a grocery store. I think having to spend hundreds of dollars for a vital medicine is closer to paying "an arm and a leg". I think there has to be a real sense of financial sacrifice in order for this expression to be authentic.

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    • An item of very high cost is often referred to as costing "an arm and a leg."
      By: alswart
      An item of very high cost is often referred to as costing "an arm and a leg."