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I watched the BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit some weeks ago, and have happily remembered a question I had forgotten from it just now. In this dialogue, Mr. Clennam, a dashing and rich gentleman, asks Frederick Dorrit — whose brother is the principal character William Dorrit, and whose lamentable tale of being locked up in Marshalsea Prison for his debts forms the basis of the entire story — about his fortunes. As Frederick Dorrit was once guarantor to his brother's debts, his fortunes have been laid very low, and he recalls the story of his past life (paraphrasing):

Things were not always the way they are now. I was once a man of leisure. I ran a boarding school for young girls...

My question is: What exactly does it mean to be a "man of leisure"? Mr. Frederick Dorrit doesn't sound to me particularly upper-class, from his job description as a proprietor, yet he applies a very gentlemanly sounding appellation to himself. I'm thinking maybe the phrase has a more nuanced meaning than merely "free from work." Can anyone help me figure that meaning, with it associated connotations, out?

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I'm ashamed to admit I didn't read Little Dorrit, but from the sound of your quote I'd say Mr. Dorrit laments the times he was rich enough to allow himself as much leisure time as he wanted, thus he was a man of leisure. –  Philoto May 27 '11 at 14:08
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3 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

A man of leisure is a man who has a source of income that does not require him to do any work.

Running Mr Dorrit's boarding school presumably did not require much of his time. Perhaps he employed a headmaster and would only be present a few times each year.

British National Corpus

The British National Corpus finds this use of the phrase in The Economist 1991:

"Mr Hoi returned home in August 1990, [...] A severance payment of DM3,000 ($1,740) has enabled Mr Hoi to buy a house and spend the past nine months as a man of leisure. He is thinking of opening a small shop."

(Mr Hoi worked in Germany and returned to his native Vietnam). It should be clear that Mr Hoi lives on his savings and does not (yet) work for a living.


It seems plausible that English usage of this phrase has been influenced by its appearance in commentaries on, and translations of, the works of classical philosophers:

Aristotle

“Leisure”, Aristotle observes, “is necessary both for the development of excellence and the performance of political duties.” (1329a1–2) The man of leisure, as he says in the Nicomachean Ethics, stands a better chance of obtaining excellence and happiness than does one constantly consumed by daily cares and woes. (NE 1177b4–27)

(from http://www.analyse-und-kritik.net/2008-1/AK_Nederman_2008.pdf)

Cicero

Cicero contrasts the life of the man of leisure with that of those who have dedicated themselves to politics and the conduct of affairs (i.e. business).

(See http://fds.oup.com/www.oup.co.uk/pdf/0-19-924018-3.pdf)

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Sourcing this statement would be helpful. Please. –  KitFox May 27 '11 at 14:11
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@Kit: The first sentence is my own. The meaning is familiar to me from lifelong immersion in British culture. It is hard for me to locate a definitive source for you. I have updated the answer with a few notes. –  RedGrittyBrick May 27 '11 at 14:59
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@RedGrittyBrick I do appreciate it, and though I am sure you are a fine, upstanding citizen, it would be difficult for me to say "because RedGrittyBrick told me that's what it means." People might think I was nutters, you see. No offense was meant. –  KitFox May 27 '11 at 16:32
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@Cerberus I think Red has defined it correctly too, but "because RedGrittyBrick and Cerberus said so" is not good support. Billare asked about nuance; understanding the origins would go a long way toward this end. Even providing a description of common contexts (as you do) would help answer this question, but simply defining it does not. Not really. –  KitFox May 27 '11 at 17:02
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@Cerberus Oops. –  KitFox May 27 '11 at 17:20
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Perhaps I inhabit less exalted circles than RedGrittyBrick, but I chiefly hear (and use) man of leisure to mean someone who is unemployed. There is possibly some convergence in that a man of leisure will usually be able to claim unemployment benefit (or whatever the current euphemism is). Whether unemployment benefit constitutes a "source of income that does not require him to do any work" is a question of politics and economics that is probably best left to the reader.

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Man of leisure meaning unemployed is a very clever euphemism, but not what Dickens meant. –  Peter Shor May 27 '11 at 21:20
    
@Peter, yes, you are undoubtedly correct; I zeroed in on the "what does it mean" part of the question, which perhaps I ought not to have done. –  Brian Hooper May 27 '11 at 21:26
    
+1 @Brian: I really like your answer, even though it's somewhat orthogonal to the original question. –  Peter Shor May 27 '11 at 21:31
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Man of leisure, IMHO, is one, as you guys have said, does not have to work to support his or others' lifestyle. This may conote a wealthy man who inherited his money, or, alternatively, it could also depict a man who is "kept" by someone who has the means to provide him with such a lifestyle.

In other words, in its pure sense, it describes a man who is independently wealthy. And in a more modern or, dare I say, more "impure" sense, it is sometimes used to describe a high-end gigolo who himself has few financial concerns as the result of another man or woman's generosity. This interpretation is more commonly used in the gay community.

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