Friday, 17 December 2010

Honourable Breaches

Right. That's it. I'm going to tell you this just once, world, and I expect you to pay attention.

I have just read, for the thousandth time, someone using the expression "more honoured in the breach than the observance", but failing to understand what it means. Listen: it does not mean "this is a rule or law which people break more often than not".

The phrase is a quote from Hamlet (a play by the well-known playwright William Shakespeare, which admittedly can sometimes seem to have been composed by someone using the cut-up technique on a dictionary of well-known phrases and sayings) .

Here is the context:

HORATIO: Indeed? I heard it not. It then draws near the season
Wherein the spirit held his wont to walk.
[A flourish of trumpets, and two pieces go off.]
What does this mean, my lord?

HAMLET: The King doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swagg'ring upspring reels,
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettledrum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.

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.
This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduc'd and tax'd of other nations;
They clip us drunkards and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
From our achievements, though perform'd at height,
The pith and marrow of our attribute.

It doesn't take much effort to realise that what Hamlet means is, "This is a bloody stupid custom, and people would do it and themselves more honour by not keeping it. We Danes have thereby acquired an unfortunate international rep as piss artists. Sigh."

I really don't understand this urge to decorate writing with tired, half-understood quotes and allusions to texts the writers have clearly never read. "It just grew, like Topsy?" anyone? "Goodnight Vienna"? "A bit of a curate's egg?" The odd thing is, if the kind of people who tend to use them did know the sources of many such boilerplate expressions, they'd probably stop using them. Why would some tough-guy entrepreneur want to allude to some prissy 19th century cartoon in Punch? Why would some self-styled moral guardian use the punchline to a truly filthy joke?

But here's an interesting one. When, in Animal Farm, the commandment on the barn is altered to
Does "more equal" mean "inferior" or "superior"? Most people think "inferior", but are they right?


Dave Leeke said...

Hmmm . . .I always thought it meant "superior" - ie the pigs have more rights etc.

Mike C. said...

Interesting -- me too, but I think we're in a (superior) minority!


Dave Leeke said...

I'm just off to the English Department Christmas meal down the local Indian (Restaurant) and, out of interest, I will ask them what they understand it to mean.

I wonder what the collective noun for a group of English Teachers is?

Mike C. said...

Glad to contribute to the seasonal jollity... If you want to really embarrass them, ask them who wrote the sonnet beginning "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways..." Anyone answering "Shakespeare" will be summarily dismissed!

"I wonder what the collective noun for a group of English Teachers is?"

Oooh, don't tempt us like that, Dave...


David Brookes said...


How about a "recitation" of English Teachers? Assuming, of course, that you mean teachers of English and not teachers claiming to be English.

And how about Elizabeth Barrett Browning?

Mike C. said...

Far too polite, David, and I doubt there's much recitation going on over the biriani. I did give this some thought last night, but had been drinking Thatcher's Katy Somerset cider, and decided not to risk insulting at least five of my best and closest friends, who are or were of that trade.

Yes, it is EBB, but knowing that only counts if you're under pressure, away from the internet, and in front of a raucous table of colleagues...


Dave Leeke said...

I'm afraid I'd left by the time your reply was posted. However, most agreed about "superior".

And after last night, although not literary, possibly an "embarrassment" of English Teachers - being the only male member (stop sniggering at the back) of the department means sitting listening to lots of drunken girl's talk". And they're loud.

Paul Mc Cann said...

Haven't been just reading ' The Luminous Landscape ' have you ?

Mike C. said...

Indeed I have, Paul, well spotted. I used to enjoy that site, but it's gone seriously downhill in recent years -- it's now just a vehicle for DVD sales and half-baked essays by people whose photographic results don't justify their ludicrously expensive equipment!


Kent Wiley said...

Yeah, I always thought "superior."

Bronislaus Janulis said...


Thanks for the card; one of my favorites of your images.

Glad to know others find the LL site ... annoying, and contentious.

Superior, and isn't that sort of the point of the book?

My low key offering for a group of English teachers would be "gaggle".

And Mike, you do seem to be on a mighty "tear" of late. Good on you!


Anonymous said...

Always seemed to mean "superior" to me, too.

And I'm with you on the double-L, as well.


Dave Leeke said...

I quite like a "gaggle" but I've also heard of, boringly, a "staff" of teachers (real yawn that one) but I like a "fabrication" of English Teachers.

Mike C. said...

Well, given the consensus here, it seems I may be wrong about "more equal than others" -- or perhaps I'm just attracting a more discerning class of commenter.