Hamlet and Eggs

From Hamlet, Scene IV


Is it a custom?


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.

What does this closing line really mean? In the political and policy circles of my acquaintance, this expression tends to be used differently in the U.S. and the U.K.

In the U.S., I mainly hear this expression used to mean “A rule that is broken more often than it is followed”.

In the U.K., I mainly hear it used to mean “A rule that is more respectable to break than to follow”.

On a separate note, people use “to the manor born” — perhaps originally a play on Shakespeare’s words — to indicate that someone is from a wealthy family (see the popular TV show here). If someone like that marries a poor person, is that poor person “to the manor borne”?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

18 thoughts on “Hamlet and Eggs”

  1. Since the “manner” is the custom of Claudius to have a loud and drunken party each night so soon after killing his brother, marrying his sister-in-law, and usurping the crown, I assume that Hamlet means that the custom of having such unseemly revelry as better not to follow than to follow. The U.K. usage seems to be closer to the mark.

    1. This is also how August Wilhelm Schlegel interpreted the line in his translation (which required that the sentence structure be recast to retain the meter):

      “… ist’s ein Gebrauch//Wovon der Bruch mehr ehrt als die Befolgung”

      (… it is a custom//of which the breach is more honorable than the observance.)

  2. I’ve definitely encountered British uses of the phrase as “To the manner born”, while in the US I’ve only ever seen “To the manor born”. This may be because in the UK (or, to be more accurate, in period costume dramas set in the UK) one can be a Gentleman based on one’s antecedents, upbringing, and demeanour, however impoverished, while based on the same criteria one can also be of the gutters now matter how Commerce has enriched one’s parents.

  3. A decade ago I would hear it both ways in the U.S. Now it seems almost solely to be the usage you have described. I’ve noticed a similar shift in how “beg the question” is used.

    1. The problem with “begging the question” is that it is a non-idiomatic (and arguably incorrect) translation of of the Greek original.

      The phrase in Greek is “en archei aiteisthai”, and “aithestai” in this context (logic) should be translated as “assume”, not “beg”. The translation of “archei” as “question” is even more dubious. And starting from the Latin “petitio principii” does not make things any better.

      Instead, someone introduced a whole new meaning for “to beg” into English that’s pretty much only used for this particular phrase.

      Fast-forward a few centuries, and people start to really have trouble trying to figure out how to make sense out of the phrase if they haven’t been taught its exact meaning. So, trying to understand it, many probably interpret “to beg” here in its meaning of “to ask humbly” (even though the construction is transitive, not intransitive, but it’s not like the phrase makes a whole lot of sense either way to the uninitiated).

      In the end, the alternative meaning “to raise the question” develops out of that. And that really isn’t a problem, given that the original meaning is no less of a hash.

  4. Since Hamlet goes on immediately to lament how this sort of drinking party gives Denmark a bad name, there’s no question he means “better to break this custom than to keep it.”

  5. As I read the play, the “custom” in question isn’t the drunken party, it’s marking every drink the king takes with a flourish of trumpets and a salute of cannon.

    As to “begging the question,” the Latin is petitio, which can mean “pleading” in its special sense of “making an argument in court.” In this context “begging” is indeed a very poor translation. The phrase is now often used to mean that an argument either (1) ignores an obvious issue or (2) raises a further question.

  6. How do people take “deceptively simple”? What is literally says, simple but appearing complex, or complex but appearing simple?

  7. Honored in the breach in the Shakespeare scene clearly means what it means in the U.K.: a custom that it is more honorable to flout than to observe.

    I am, of course, a guilty descriptivist with an explanation: a new usage, once prevalent, should be considered proper as long as it’s clear and as long as it involves no loss of expressiveness (i.e. the new usage does not impoverish the language). By that standard, the U.S. usage, which is certainly prevalent in this country, is “correct” in the U.S.: something “honored in the breach” means, here, something that is advocated but rarely practiced.

    “Beg the question” is a different matter. As Mark says, it’s often (now, in the U.S. at least) used to mean “raise a further question.” But if you mean that, why not just say that? It’s perfectly clear and concise. On the other hand, there’s no concise expression in English that means what petitio principi means in Latin. So I’m fighting a valiant rearguard action to preserve the original meaning of “beg the question”: “to assume, in the course of trying to prove something, that very thing.”

    1. “Assuming the answer/conclusion” works for me, is fairly self-explanatory, and allows you to even preserves the alliteration of the original Greek. 🙂

      1. …as the Latin translator of the phrase was no doubt determined to do as well?

        The problem is that “assuming the answer” is not really what’s going on: one is assuming that one has *proven* the conclusion, or the answer. (Of course the Greek and Latin don’t really capture that either. But we know what they mean. I’m essentially looking for a return to a phrase of art that’s clearer, once one knows it, than its terms taken individually would be.)

        “Circular reasoning” (from J.J. Ramsey just below) I suppose works. It’s hard to make into a pithy verb or verbal (“engaging in circular reasoning” lacks the punch of “begging the question”), but that is/was, of course, true of petitio principi as well.

        I suppose I’m also worried that future speakers of English will see “beg the question” in earlier texts and think they know what it means when they don’t. But that’s true of all language change. I have to coach my students before assigning Hume or the Federalist Papers that “specious” means plausible, and that “discover” generally means “reveal.”

    2. “Circular reasoning” is another alternative way to express the sentiment meant by “begging the question.”

    3. Begging the question, in the original sense, could be described as engaging in a bootstrap argument. I was once asked to translate the latter expression into French. I failed at the time, but it occurred to me later that a workable translation would be ‘pétition de principes’… from, of course, the Latin noted above.

      I have recently seen someone consistently say ‘begets the question’, which I thought was a nice correction of the writer’s original intention to say ‘begs the question’ but catching himself.

      I think the Language Log passage, which I have not reread, considers the expression ‘begs the question’ to be ‘skunked’ – i.e. it is now impossible to assume that the speaker and the listener are using the term in the same way, so it can’t be used to communicate. A similar status applies to ‘disinterested’, ‘inflammable’, and others. Despite the lack of logic, probably ‘I could care less’ is not skunked, because it is universally understood in the sense opposite to what it appears to say.

      FWIW I think Hamlet was referring to an older custom than just Claudius’s practice – which gives sense to his ‘to the manner born’. He wasn’t born when Claudius became king, that was very recent. I agree with the comments here about the standard US and UK senses given to the ‘honoured in the breach’ expression, which is probably not skunked except in transatlantic conversations…

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