Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Hamlet’

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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Willy Nilly

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 24, 2011

When Doctor Who discussed the concept of time in the episode “Blink” in Season 3, he said that time, rather than being a linear string of cause and event, was actually more akin to a ball made out of “timey wimey wibbly wobbly” stuff.  Timey wimey, wibbly wobbly, willy nilly … there’s a lot of rhyming to be found in the English language but they all have their origins somewhere in time.

When something happens willy-nilly, it happens in a very disorganized and happenstance way with little to no forethought going into it.

The Sarasota Herald Tribune reported on such a situation on July 13, 1958 in an article entitled, “Doctor Raps Reliance on New Drugs.”  The article stated:

Dr. Harold R. Reames, chief of the department of infectious disease of the Upjohn Co., Kalamazoo, said doctors use [wonder] drugs too indiscriminately and have badly mishandled many aspects of the control of germ-caused disease.

“Surely progress has been made as illustrated by work on diarrheal disease,” Reames said.  “But antibiotics and chemotherapeutic agents have been used excessively and in a willy-nilly fashion.”

And on November 24, 1855 the New York Times ran in their weekly column “Gossip: What Has Been Most Talked About During The Week.”

When he piped about “Evangeline” everybody took to hexameter just as they do now to trochaics when he pipes about “Hiawatha.”  He has bewitched the public with his Indian legends, and, willy-nilly, everybody imitates him. It is just as marked a tribute to his genius as turn-over collars and gin-drinking thirty years ago were to Byron’s fascinations.

Back in 1601, in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the following is found in Act V, Scene I:

FIRST CLOWN:
Give me leave. Here lies the water—good. Here stands the man—good. If the man go to this water and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes. Mark you that.  But if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself. Argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.

SECOND CLOWN:
But is this law?

FIRST CLOWN:
Ay, marry, is’t; crowner’s quest law.

One of the earliest known versions of the expression willy nilly from an Old English text entitled, “Aelfric’s Lives of Saints” dated 1,000 AD where the following is found:

Forean the we synd synfulle and sceolan beon eadmode,
Wille we, nelle we, and he wolde sylf-willes
us syllan a bysne, swa swa he sylf cwae

But in the end, it must be noted that there is a Latin phrase that couples together “willing” and “unwilling” in the expression nolens volens which certainly expresses the sentiments of willy nilly in spirit and in context.

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Brevity Is The Soul Of Wit

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 9, 2010

We all know that jokes and funny stories seem so much funnier when they don’t drag on and on before getting to the punch line.  Even Shakespeare knew that!

In his play, Hamlet, you’ll find the expression, “brevity is the soul of wit.”  Polonius speaks the well-known line but the fact of the matter is that Polonius is one of the least brief and least witty talkers around. 

POLONIUS:
This business is well ended.
My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief: your noble son is mad:
Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,
What is’t but to be nothing else but mad?
But let that go.

 Throughout the play, Polonius doles out quite a bit of advice to anyone who crosses his path.  What makes this all the funnier while being tragic at the same time is that he doesn’t follow any of his own advice.

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Something Stinks Around Here

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 8, 2010

When someone says that “something stinks around here” the meaning is clear.  But where does this expression come from and who first used it?  The expression is actually a version of the expression “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” which can first be found in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet.  In the play, the expression is a commentary on the corruption in Denmark’s royal palace at the time.

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In My Mind’s Eye

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 7, 2010

While it’s true that Shakespeare used the phrase in his famous play, Hamlet, he didn’t make the phrase up as he did so many other phrases that are part of every day English these days.

A published version of the concept of seeing something in “my mind’s eye” can be found in a letter written by Hubert Languet to Sir Philip Sidney in 1577.   In his letter he wrote:

What will not these golden mountains effect … which I dare say stand before your mind’s eye day and night?

However, the concept of “my mind’s eye” was used by Chaucer in The Man of Law’s Tale, written in 1390, where he wrote:

It were with thilke eyen of his mynde, With whiche men seen, after that they been blynde.

But even before then, in 1183, a Christian mystic by the name of Joachim of Flora wrote “Exposition of Revelation” in which the reader can find this passage:

I suddenly perceived in my mind’s eye something of the fullness of this book and of the entire harmony of the Old and New Testaments.”

And so we see that even though Shakespeare made good use of the phrase, since at least the late 1100s, the words mind and eye have been paired in the sense of “a mental view.”

Posted in Idioms from the 12th Century, Idioms from the 13th Century, Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Sweets To The Sweet

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 6, 2010

The phrase “sweets to the sweet” certainly gets around whether it’s in horror movies or in candy boxes on Valentine’s Day.  It can have a sinister bent; it can be the most romantic of sayings.  So who originally coined this phrase?  Shakespeare, of course.

Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude says this in Act 5, scene 1 of Hamlet at Ophelia’s funeral.  Ophelia is a young noblewoman of Denmark in the play — the daughter of Polonius, sister of Laertes, and Hamlet’s potential wife — who commits suicide.

QUEEN GERTRUDE:
Sweets to the sweet: farewell!

[Scattering flowers]

I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife;
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid,
And not have strew’d thy grave.

Ophelia is surrounded by flowers throughout the play to illustrate her naiveté and innocence.  Being naive and innocent, of course, she sees no flaws in the people she loves and so, she is truly a “sweet maid.”

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There’s Method In My Madness

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 5, 2010

This is a straight forward explanation for the expression “there’s method in my madness.”

It’s actually from a play by William Shakespeare.  In his play Hamlet, written in 1602 in Act 2. Scene 2.   The actual line from the play, spoken as an aside by Polonius is:

POLONIUS
Though this be madness, yet there is method
in ‘t. Will you walk out of the air, my lord?

Since then, the line has been modified into the more popular version we use today:  “There’s method in my madness.”

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To Thine Own Self Be True

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 1, 2010

As with yesterday’s phrase, “to thine own self be true” is oftentimes mistaken as a direct quote from the Bible.  It is actually taken from Polonius’ advice to his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet

 Yet here, Laertes! Aboard, aboard for shame!
 The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
 And you are stay’d for.
 There … my blessing with thee!
 And these few precepts in thy memory
 Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
 Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
 Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
 Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
 Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
 But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
 Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade.  Beware
 Of entrance to a quarrel but, being in,
 Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee.
 Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
 Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgement.
 Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
 But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
 For the apparel oft proclaims the man;
 And they in France of the best rank and station
 Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
 Neither a borrower, nor a lender be;
 For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
 And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
 This above all: to thine own self be true,
 And it must follow, as the night the day,
 Thou canst not then be false to any man.
 Farewell; my blessing season this in thee!

Of course, it’s easy to see how this could happen as what Polonius tells his son is actually Shakespeare reworking the Ninth Commandment:  “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”  

In other words, one should not lie to himself or herself.  When one does not lie to himself or herself, it follows that he or she does not lie to others no matter what the situation.  The Ninth Commandment is phrased in an absolute manner that does not permit exceptions and so one can only be true to himself or herself in following the Commandments.

So while Shakespeare may have coined the phrase “to thine own self be true” the spirit of the phrase has a very long history that reaches back thousands of years into the Old Testament.

Posted in Bible, Christian, Idioms from the 17th Century, Jewish | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Neither A Borrower Nor A Lender Be

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 31, 2010

Surely with Biblical passages that reference lending and borrowing, the Bible must be the origin of this phrase.

Ex. 22:25  “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.”

Deut. 23:19  “You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent.” 

Luke 6:34 “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.” 

Oddly enough, however, the Bible is not the origin of this phrase.  It is actually an original phrase written by none other than William Shakespeare in his play Hamlet in Act 1, scene 3 and is spoken by Polonius.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edges of husbandry.”

When Shakespeare’s play was staged around 1600, history shows that borrowing was epidemic among the gentry.  This epidemic resulted in more than a few cases of landowners selling off their estates piece by piece to maintain their ostentatious lifestyles in London.

Wisely enough, those with money to spare had that money because they knew better than to borrow money against their assets and they knew better t han to loan money to others.

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