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
ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUALDoes "more equal" mean "inferior" or "superior"? Most people think "inferior", but are they right?
BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS