Man of letters

  • Man of letters is an idiom that is hundreds of years old. An idiom is a commonly used word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech common in American slang or British slang, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as hit the sack, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, colloquial terms, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the common saying man of letters, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.


    A man of letters is someone who is educated, a scholar, someone who has studied literature. The expression a man of letters came into use in the mid-1600s and is still in use today, though its popularity peaked in the 1800s and earlier 1900s. The idiom has probably fallen out of popularity because it is not gender inclusive. The word letters has been used since the 1200s to mean the profession of working in literature or writing. The plural of man of letters is men of letters.



    Charles Scribner, Jr., was also a man of letters; he presided over the publishing house established by his great-grandfather in the eighteen-forties. (The New Yorker)

    This novel by the foremost man of letters from Mississippi since William Faulkner takes up where a previous gripper, Camino Island (Bantam, 2017), left off. (Forbes)

    I discovered during that 2015 nine-days media cycle that Barbadian man of letters and Combermere schoolmaster Frank Collymore had been quite curious half a century ago about the steups, and compiled his own taxonomy of its various meanings, which he notes are shaped both by the length of the sound, how it’s articulated, and what other facial and body language accompanies it. (Trinidad and Tobago Newsday)

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