22 June 2016

"To the manner born"

I spent the evening of the summer solstice sitting outdoors with a recreational beverage, reading the only first edition I own - a copy of John Dickson Carr's Speak of the Devil.

One of the secondary characters in the story, set in Regency England (1816), is H.R.H. The Prince Regent, who speaks as follows to a lady:
"A charming curtsy, b'gad! Charming!  Miss Adair, your knee -- if I may mention such a delicate subject -- is to the manner born."
(She replies "Your Royal Highness is too kind.")

It's not a phrase encountered very often on this side of the pond, and I needed to sort out in my head the distinction from the old BBC comedy "To the Manor Born."

First I generated an Ngram chart (above) with the two phrases ("manner" in blue, "manor" in red).  Then a quick visit to The Phrase Finder gave the definitive answer:
Any examination of 'to the manner born' has to include a mention of its often-quoted incarnation, 'to the manor born'. That has a similar meaning but stresses manorial birth, that is, it refers to someone born into the nobility. 

The 'manner' version is earlier and there's some debate amongst etymologists as to whether the second of these phrases was coined deliberately as a play on words, or whether it is just a misspelling of 'manner' as 'manor'. The third possibility, that they arose independently, is highly unlikely. 

'To the manner born' was used by, and probably coined by, Shakespeare, in Hamlet, 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.
The meaning there is clear. Hamlet knows the custom being spoken of because he is native, that is, born locally. 

Hamlet was written in or around 1600 and published in 1603. The 'manor' version comes much later. The earliest reference I've found so far is in The Times, July 1859...
The article there goes on to discuss the television program and also concludes that the pre-existing concurrent existence of manner/manor is an eggcorn.


  1. No eggcorn in the "old BBC TV series". It was a clever and deliberate play on words vs the original. Penelope Keith as "Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, an upper-class woman, upon the death of her husband, has to move out of her beloved manor house to the estate's old lodge". Peter Bowles as nouveau riche Richard DeVere (formerly Bedrich Polouvicek) is the new "lord of the manor".

  2. you could do several weeks worth of posts just on eggcorns.

    never mind... someone already has! http://eggcorns.lascribe.net/ The Eggcorn Database - has 645 eggcorns!


    1. Been there, done that.


    2. darn! :-) you are are so way ahead of everyone! :-)


  3. it seems that most eggcorns express the same 'sentiment', regardless of which word is used. born to the manner / manor - both imply that someone is born to a better class than the rest.


  4. Is this the Carr book published by Crippen and Landru? http://www.crippenlandru.com/shop/oscommerce-2.3.4/catalog/index.php

    This is my Father in Laws publishing company - Doug Greene

    1. Yes, that's it. Given to me by my wife as a Christmas present when I was nearing my goal of collecting the entire works of JDC/Carter Dickson. Only a thousand copies printed (and now sold out).

      Kudos to your father-in-law. Good introduction, easy-to-read typography, clean graphics - a quality book.


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