Tuesday, May 15, 2007

More honoured in the breach

"More honoured in the breach" is habitually mis-used. This offends me. In Hamlet, Horatio is shocked to hear drums, trumpets and canon sounding off whenever the king drains his cup of wine. Is that the custom here he asks?  Sadly yes, replies Hamlet; but to my mind, though I am native here and to the manner born, it’s a custom more honoured in the breach than in the observance.  Meaning : the custom is a disgrace, and it would be better for Denmark’s reputation not to do it, than to do it.

Instances of mis-alluding to this passage are numberless, but here’s an egregious one.  Jonathan Aitken on p 32 of The Guardian 3rd May 2007: 

“If ever there was a part of the law ‘more honoured in the breach than in the observance’ it is the statutes of perjury.”

We know what he intends – he intends to say that the statutes of perjury are rarely used and ought to be used more often. But by choosing to mis-allude to Hamlet, he actually says the opposite : he says the statutes of perjury are a disgrace, and it would be better if they were never to be used at all. 

Reference:  Hamlet, Act I, Sc 4, 12-16


  1. I'm not entirely sure I've ever come across that phrase, but if I have, I have probably just skimmed past it, not knowing what it's supposed to mean, either in correct, or incorrect usage.

  2. Tush! A son of mine doesn't know Shakespeare!