Sometimes the simplest query to this column can trigger the loveliest of journeys. Consider an e-mail from Robin Morton, formerly of this parish (notably on our business and leader writers’ desks):
“Forgive me for being pedantic,” Robin wrote — my heart sank at that bit, but fear not, it was soon revived — “but I have noticed the phrase ‘to the manor born’ being used a couple of times recently in the BT. Hmmm. I wonder if this should be ‘to the manner born’.”
Robin continued: “I referred to my copy of the trusty New Oxford Dictionary of English and read: ‘To the manner born: naturally at ease in a specified job or situation: she slipped into a more courtly role as if to the manner born (origin: with allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet I iv 17 Destined by birth to follow a custom or way of life’).”
I was about to concede the point to Robin, for, as a lowly hack, I do not feel confident challenging the mighty Oxford Dictionary, when a second e-mail arrived.
Robin and a friend had unearthed further information from www.phrases.org.uk, including the following:
“To the manner born: destined to be suited to something, by virtue of birth or custom and practice.
“Any examination ... has to include a mention of its often-quoted incarnation ‘to the manor born’. That has a similar meaning, but stresses manorial birth ...
“The ‘manner’ version is earlier and 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 same piece of research records the first use of ‘to the manor born’ as being in The Times in 1859 and then gaining frequency.
I think there’s no doubt that, in popular usage, ‘manor born’ has much more currency; a potent example of how language changes with time and usage.
Incidentally, the rate of change was greatly speeded up by the 1970s’ BBC sitcom To The Manor Born.
It may well be likely that the show’s massive popularity will ultimately be blamed for putting the final nail into Shakespeare’s ‘manner born’ version.
So there you have it. A Shakespearean creation being consigned to obscurity by Penelope Keith, Peter Bowles and Angela Thorne.
Who’d have thought it?