The Grammarphobia Blog

In a manor of speaking

Q: Last weekend I was with a group of friends (intelligent readers one and all) who disagreed on which is the correct phrase: “to the manor born” or “to the manner born.” I know I’ve heard you discuss this on WNYC. Who’s right?

A: Purists insist that “to the manner born” is the correct expression, but most people seem to prefer “to the manor born.” Who’s right? The simple answer is that there’s no simple answer.

I’ll have to go back to Shakespeare, who started it all, to answer your question.

When the first actor to play Hamlet first spoke the phrase around the end of the 16th century, it was “to the manner born” and meant accustomed to a behavior from birth.

And that’s the only way the expression was used for the next two and a half centuries.

In the mid-19th century, though, writers began playfully replacing “manner” with “manor” for humorous effect, either as puns or as malapropisms in the mouths of fictional characters. The two words have nothing in common but their sound – and their ready availability for punning.

In 1847, a punster at the Princeton Review wrote: “He intended … to return to Scotland and reside on his estate there as ‘though a native – and to the manor born.’ ”

The author obviously knew his Shakespeare and was taking liberties for comic effect. Nothing wrong with that. Writers have been making puns with sound-alike words such as “manner” and “manor” since the earliest days of English.

It didn’t take long for writers to turn the pun into a malapropism and put it into the mouths of their word-mangling characters.

The British playwright James R. Planché, for example, has a tribal leader in The Prince of Happy Land, an 1851 comedy, saying: “My name is Tan-ti-vee, / A native chief, and to the manor born, / I trace my line from Nimrod, through French Horn!”

Again, nothing wrong here (aside from the political incorrectness).

But the joke soon got out of hand. People began using “to the manor born” instead of “to the manner born,” and giving the updated expression a new meaning: born to wealth and privilege – that is, with a silver spoon in one’s mouth.

Usage writers have been rapping knuckles ever since. The crime – if we can call it that – was aided and abetted by the British sitcom To the Manor Born, whose title was intended as a pun.

The “incorrect” version is now the more popular of the two, and language guides are beginning to recognize both as legitimate with slightly different meanings.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, includes both – one under its entry for “manner” and the other under “manor” – without a frown.

And The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says both forms are acceptable. The older expression still means familiar with something since birth. The upstart means privileged since birth.

Sticklers may grumble, but Shakespeare wouldn’t have minded. He knew that language changes. He changed a lot of it himself.

I hope this explanation helps. I’ve taken much of it from Origins of the Specious, a book about language myths and misconceptions that I wrote with my husband, Stewart Kellerman.

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