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shameless pleading

To the manner / manor born

Please pass the passé.

Dear Word Detective: I have heard the phrase “to the manner born” (or “to the manor born”) fairly frequently, and I understand it to mean someone born to the upper classes (or someone who has the appearance of being born to the upper classes). First, which is correct: “manner” or “manor”? Second, where did the phrase originate? — Mary Funke.

That’s an interesting question, but not as simple to answer as it seems. I did a column last year on the phrase “getting into the weeds,” meaning “delving deeply into the details of a situation, possibly to the point of irrelevance.” The answer to your question involves a bit of such weed wading, but I’m fairly certain that most of it will be relevant. So put on your old hip boots and mind the snakes.

To begin at the beginning, the original phrase was definitely “to the manner born.” It was coined, as many of our best idioms were, by William Shakespeare, in this case in Hamlet, Act I, Scene iv, when Hamlet observes of the drunken atmosphere at Elsinore, “But to my mind, though I am native here / And to the manner born, it is a custom / More honour’d in the breach than the observance.”

Though Hamlet was, of course, a prince, he was not referring to his noble birth when he spoke of “manner.” He was saying that he had been born into an environment where such a “manner” — customs or behavior — was expected, and thus not surprising. “To the manner born” went on to be used for the next few centuries in just this class-neutral sense; one could be born on a farm and “to the manner born” of rising at dawn, for instance, or by upbringing be accustomed to “the manner” of energetic argument as city-dwellers often are (“If occasion demanded he could do or think a thing with as mercurial a dash as can the men of towns who are more to the manner born,” T. Hardy, 1874). The phrase eventually took on the added meaning of “naturally suited to a given task or role” by interest or aptitude, rather than by place or situation of birth (“John F. Kennedy was to the manner born. Nothing became him so much as the White House,” 1963).

In the mid-19th century, however, a variant of “to the manner born” appeared. “To the manor born,” meaning “born into, or naturally suited to, upper-class life,” substituted “manor” (the house on an estate; a mansion) as a symbol of an aristocratic lifestyle for “manner” meaning simply “customs or habits.” It’s unclear whether this new form was the result of an error (“manner” and “manor” being pronounced identically by most English-speakers) or a deliberate pun by some obscure Victorian wit. In any case, “to the manor born” spread rapidly and is by far more commonly seen today (“Not unequivocally to the manor born, he allied himself by marriage … and personal preference with the first families of Virginia,” 1962).

The rise of “manor” in place of “manner” set the stage, however, for a long-running battle over which is the “correct” form, and made “to the manor born” a favorite target of scorn for usage scolds (the same people who insist that “decimate” can only mean “to kill every tenth person in a group”). Complicating the question, however, is the fact that although the two phrases had, at their outset, substantially different meanings, “to the manner born” is rarely used today in its original sense of “born into certain habits or customs.” On those increasingly rare occasions when it crops up, “to the manner born” is most often used synonymously with “to the manor born” to mean “suited to wealth” (probably because “manners” and “mannered behavior” are popularly associated with the wealthy). So it appears that “to the manor born” has won and “to the manner born,” at least in its original sense, is headed for extinction. We can mourn the loss of the original “born into certain customs” sense, but them’s the breaks, kids.

This does not mean, of course, that the usage cops will drop their case against “to the manor born.” But the bottom line is that “to the manor born” means something quite different from what Shakespeare meant by “to the manner born,” so complaints about the “manner/manor” spelling shift miss the point. As the eminently sane Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Usage notes, “If someone intends a meaning that is not Shakespeare’s, why use Shakespeare’s spelling?”

14 comments to To the manner / manor born

  • Katie Baker

    I found “to the manner born” referring to Romney on January 18, 2012 in the NYT. Meaning, of course, “to the manor born.” So, maybe common usage will trump M-W Dictionary and logic?

  • Maxine

    Check out Maureen Dowd’s op-ed column in NYTimes, Wed., 1/18/12. She compares “Poppy” Bush and Mitt Romney as both being “to the manner born.” I would have much preferred that she use “manor” rather than “manner.” It seems that, as you said, “manner” in its original sense is indeed headed for extinction. If the NYTimes thinks the two meanings are synonymous, and chooses to print “manner born” in reference to Bush and Romney, who am I to argue? On the other hand, why does it bother me so??

  • MJ

    Shakespeare may have intended both meanings. A line of critics, several of whom were lawyers-cum-Shakespearians, stretching from William Rushton Lowes in the mid-1850s to George Malcolm Young in the late 1940s, made an argument about “though I am native here, and to the manner born, it is a custom more honour’d in the breach, than the observance” that draws on the legal understanding of the term “nativus,” which refers to a person born within a manor. As Horace Furness notes in his variorum edition, “Hamlet, therefore, may speak of Denmark, or Elsinore as the manor, himself as _nativus_, to the manor born, and the ‘heavy handed revel’ as a custom incident to the manor. ‘Manor’ is here used, probably, in a double sense.”

  • [...] of ‘ to the manner born’ instead of ‘to the manor born’, I would like to point them to http://www.word-detective.com/2011/10/to-the-manner-manor-born/. The original phrase “to the manner born” was coined by William Shakespeare in Hamlet, Act I, [...]

  • Bruce Garr

    I came across this discussion after finishing today’s (9/11/12) Boston Globe crossword puzzle. The answer to the clue “living royally since birth” (17 across) is “to the manner born”. Despite my initial surprise, given the Shakespearean origin of the phrase, I’ll have to allow for the correctness of the use of “manner” in this instance. Call it poetic (crossword?) license.

  • Kathy B

    I am looking for a word or phrase that is similar to this one, but not in English. I have read it and heard it, once each, but did not retain it. It’s in Latin or French, I think. I believe it describes the attitude of nobility who see their place, status, privilege as God-given. It is either Renaissance or medieval and I think the reference I read was in England. Been scratching my head on this one for quite awhile. Would love any help you can offer. It’s NOT noblesse oblige.

  • Peter

    Could it be “porphyrogenitos” or “porphyrogenite” you’re looking for? It means “born in the purple” in Greek and was used as a legitimizing honorific by Byzantine emperors who were born (in the purple birthing room) while their fathers were still reigning. Wikipedia and Wiktionary have pages explaining the term.

  • Penelope

    “In the mid-19th century, however, a variant of “to the manner born” appeared. “To the manor born,” ….. (“Not unequivocally to the manor born, he allied himself by marriage … and personal preference with the first families of Virginia,” 1962).”
    I believe you meant mid 20th century, this being the 21st (I’m seeing this error a lot lately). Another reason, and perhaps a primary source of the error, was a British comedy that started in 1979. “To the Manor Born” played on the ‘manner’ phrase and of course it was about the lives of aristocrats. I have to admit that as a quasi word nerd I actually got this wrong (i.e. thought the sitcom title was the real expression), which is what let me to your site. In fact, I’ve sheepishly found a couple of eggcorns in my vocab recently – including ‘hone in’ instead of ‘home in’ and while I’ve never given a ‘kudo’ I certainly once thought it was something that just came in plural.

  • Carlton Reynolds

    It is clear from the context of the original usage that it was referring to ‘manor’ as Hamlet had already stated he was a native, he was obviously alluding to his nobility. Custom was established and nurtured the nobility and was not as important to the ‘commoners’.

    Penelope, the usage is like that of compliment, always in the plural, so that is why you incorrectly inferred that the singular did not exist. The phrase ‘every little make a muckle’ was wrongly written in a book by George Washington as ‘every mickle make a muckle’, both words having the same meaning, thus rendering the phrase meaningless!

  • [...] plausible answer is two generations. (But I’d like to think that people born to the manor are those most keenly aware that this usage is terribly antique and may paint the speaker as some [...]

  • Liam Hohn

    What fun! In the case of the NYT article on the Romneys manner seems more appropriate.

  • sjbrogan

    Good response and well written. Thank you very much. Appreciate the effort that went into this.

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