Honoured in the breach

A highly literate friend (and he should be, as an old Times correspondent) has very gently reproved me for misusing the old cliché about a custom more honoured in the breach than in the observance:
>>I fear we may still be at cross-purposes on the friendliness of Americans and customs more honour’d in the breach etc. Your meaning, I thought, was perfectly clear – namely, that while friendliness towards strangers was still the general custom in the US, it was becoming a custom more often ignored than observed by some Americans. What I was impertinent enough to take you up on was your misuse of the tag from Hamlet in support of this proposition. What Hamlet says (and the words are those of Hamlet himself, not Polonius) is: 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. (Act I, Sc. IV, lines 14-16). The custom to which Hamlet is referring is the heavy drinking and carousing that is a feature of life at the Danish court, of which he disapproves. He is thus not saying that this is a custom more often ignored than observed – if that were so he would have nothing to complain of. Rather, he is saying that it is a custom better – more honourably – ignored (as by him but not by the rest of the court) than observed, which is quite different. You are, of course, in good company. The line more honour’d in the breach than the observance, or variations on it, is now a standard leader writer’s cliché, invariably used in the incorrect “more often ignored than observed” sense. Indeed, it would probably now be almost impossible to quote it in the correct sense, because no one would understand what you were talking about. So probably best not used at all. It is an interesting example of how many Shakespearean phrases, like scraps from the Bible, have become so much part of the language that their provenance has been forgotten and they have acquired meanings they did not have in their original setting. As Kingsley Amis comments in the “Howlers” section of his The King’s English, the correct meaning of the lines is something that everyone should know “and Shakespeare could have afforded to make a little clearer”.< < I shall know better next time -- if I remember. * * * * *

4 Responses

  1. Brian says:

    Come on, someone, let’s have an argument!

  2. Do you want the 5$ or the $10 argument Brian?

  3. Brian says:

    Aw, shucks, in for a penny: I’ll go for the $10 version, Tony, thanks.


  4. Although I should be too embarrassed to admit it, I did not immediately recognise the lines as a quote from Hamlet,let alone Shakespeare. As such, I was deprived of its original Scandinavian context, which seems to have been stripped away over the years. To me it made perfect sense. Proscribing it seems a little harsh.