Please pass the passé.
Dear Word Detective: I have heard the phrase “to the manner born” (or “to the manor born”) fairly frequently, and I understand it to mean someone born to the upper classes (or someone who has the appearance of being born to the upper classes). First, which is correct: “manner” or “manor”? Second, where did the phrase originate? — Mary Funke.
That’s an interesting question, but not as simple to answer as it seems. I did a column last year on the phrase “getting into the weeds,” meaning “delving deeply into the details of a situation, possibly to the point of irrelevance.” The answer to your question involves a bit of such weed wading, but I’m fairly certain that most of it will be relevant. So put on your old hip boots and mind the snakes.
To begin at the beginning, the original phrase was definitely “to the manner born.” It was coined, as many of our best idioms were, by William Shakespeare, in this case in Hamlet, Act I, Scene iv, when Hamlet observes of the drunken atmosphere at Elsinore, “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.”
Though Hamlet was, of course, a prince, he was not referring to his noble birth when he spoke of “manner.” He was saying that he had been born into an environment where such a “manner” — customs or behavior — was expected, and thus not surprising. “To the manner born” went on to be used for the next few centuries in just this class-neutral sense; one could be born on a farm and “to the manner born” of rising at dawn, for instance, or by upbringing be accustomed to “the manner” of energetic argument as city-dwellers often are (“If occasion demanded he could do or think a thing with as mercurial a dash as can the men of towns who are more to the manner born,” T. Hardy, 1874). The phrase eventually took on the added meaning of “naturally suited to a given task or role” by interest or aptitude, rather than by place or situation of birth (“John F. Kennedy was to the manner born. Nothing became him so much as the White House,” 1963).
In the mid-19th century, however, a variant of “to the manner born” appeared. “To the manor born,” meaning “born into, or naturally suited to, upper-class life,” substituted “manor” (the house on an estate; a mansion) as a symbol of an aristocratic lifestyle for “manner” meaning simply “customs or habits.” It’s unclear whether this new form was the result of an error (“manner” and “manor” being pronounced identically by most English-speakers) or a deliberate pun by some obscure Victorian wit. In any case, “to the manor born” spread rapidly and is by far more commonly seen today (“Not unequivocally to the manor born, he allied himself by marriage … and personal preference with the first families of Virginia,” 1962).
The rise of “manor” in place of “manner” set the stage, however, for a long-running battle over which is the “correct” form, and made “to the manor born” a favorite target of scorn for usage scolds (the same people who insist that “decimate” can only mean “to kill every tenth person in a group”). Complicating the question, however, is the fact that although the two phrases had, at their outset, substantially different meanings, “to the manner born” is rarely used today in its original sense of “born into certain habits or customs.” On those increasingly rare occasions when it crops up, “to the manner born” is most often used synonymously with “to the manor born” to mean “suited to wealth” (probably because “manners” and “mannered behavior” are popularly associated with the wealthy). So it appears that “to the manor born” has won and “to the manner born,” at least in its original sense, is headed for extinction. We can mourn the loss of the original “born into certain customs” sense, but them’s the breaks, kids.
This does not mean, of course, that the usage cops will drop their case against “to the manor born.” But the bottom line is that “to the manor born” means something quite different from what Shakespeare meant by “to the manner born,” so complaints about the “manner/manor” spelling shift miss the point. As the eminently sane Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Usage notes, “If someone intends a meaning that is not Shakespeare’s, why use Shakespeare’s spelling?”