Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

To The Manor Born

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 27, 2016

Although the term isn’t used much these days, there was a time, not that long ago, that people would say he (or she) was to the manor born.  The problem with this idiom is that since the middle of the 19th century, writers and authors have had their way with switching out manor and manner.  To this end, the idiom has split off in two directions, with the incorrect version being the more popular of the two.

Using the word manor means that the person is born to wealth and privilege.  Using the word manner means the person has been accustomed to something since birth.   Yes, where homophones are present, wordplay and puns, along with honest mistakes, often follow.

To the manner born:  Familiar with something since birth.
To the manor born:  Privileged since birth.

SIDE NOTE 1:  Sometimes it’s difficult to trace back idioms because the way vowels are pronounced has changed over the centuries.  In Chaucer’s time, me was pronounced may, shire was pronounced sheer, house and flour were pronounced hoose and floor, domesday was pronounced doomsday, and so on.  Chaucer’s word lyf was pronounced leef and eventually it became the word life which we use in modern language today. 

Earlier this month, on October 17, 2016 on the Private Wealth website that claims to advise “the exceptionally affluent,” writer Greg Bresiger published an article titled, “Horatio Alger Is Alive And Well In The United States.”  The article discussed creating wealth in the United States as well as the fact that America is surpassing Asia when it comes to creating new billionaires.  The opening paragraph used the idiom to catch readers’ attention.

It’s a good time for the self-made American billionaire, and those who made their wealth on their own are doing better than those to the manor born, a new report says.

In 1912, Church of England priest, historian, and author, Peter Hempson (P.H.) Ditchfield (20 April 1854 – 16 September 1930) published a book titled, “The Old English Country Squire” in which he wrote the following.

And those who come to take its place in the countryside are poor substitutes for the old squire. They are not to the manner born. Though not ill-disposed they are ignorant of country customs and the deep-seated feelings of the country-folk.

SIDE NOTE 2:  Reverend Ditchfield was the Grand Chaplain of the Freemasons of England in 1917, and of the Mark Masons in 1918, as well as the Secretary of the Berkshire Archaeological Society for 38 years until 1929, when he became its President.

In the “Proceedings of the Illinois State Convention of Colored Men, Assembled at Galesburg” covering the convention from October 1866 (and published in 1867), the idiom was used in describing what happened to the Indigenous peoples in America.

During the war, a purpose briefly existed, of virtually ostracising an entire class of Americans, “native and to the manor born,” as a means of placating the unappeasable spirit, that at the moment was endeavoring, with fire and sword, to fulfill its long-cherished purpose to “rend the Union, from turret to foundation,” that upon the debris of the government framed by Washington and the fathers, and consecrated with the blood, and tears, and prayers of the American people of “the times that tried men’s souls,” a government should be erected, having for its chief corner stone, a political class distinction, subversive of their rights of, and degrading to universal humanity.

SIDE NOTE 3:  The purpose of the convention was to discuss the subject of disabilities, educational and political, that affected persons of color in the State of Illinois.  The discussion focused on the impediment persons of color experienced when trying to rise above their current situation, and to set in motion effective agencies for the purpose of securing the permanent removal of agencies that prevented that progress.

Ultimately, the first published version of the idiom is found in William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” in Act I, scene iv, published in 1602.

HORATIO:     
Is it a custom?

HAMLET:      
Ay, marry, is’t:
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.

So whether you’re to the manor born or to the manner born, you have William Shakespeare to thank for the idiom with a side nod to Hamlet.  Without Hamlet as a source of inspiration, it’s possible William may not have thought of writing that expression.

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