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The term man of letters, as I understand it, was used in the 18th and 19th centuries to describe an individual who lived a marked intellectual life; who might, for example, own a large library, conduct independent scientific investigations on his own initiative, and be engaged in correspondence with leading literary and scientific figures of his time.

However, I have been confused for a time to what the letters in the appellation refer to. I have 3 hypotheses, in order of my confidence in them:

  1. A man of letters is referred to as such because of the voluminous correspondence such a man would be expected to keep, as befitting a man acquainted with the leading literary and scientific figures of his day; we might expect the study room of a man of a letters to be replete with mail from all over the country, and much of his intellectual oeuvre might be completed within such letters. There are many prominent examples of this sort of thing; Darwin's letters contain much original work, as did Alexander Hamilton's.

  2. The appellation to refers to the distinct British habit of abbreviating all sorts of personal and professional accomplishments with letters of the Latin Alphabet. For example, an Alexander Trevelyan, BA, MA, Ph. D, FRS, KB might be appropriately described as a man of letters.

  3. It refers to simply the sort the material that should fill such a man's life; books, pamphlets, tractates and so on. The letters refer more to his literacy, than to his correspondence.

Which, if any of these, is correct?

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Not #2. The appropriate appellation for #2 is 'someone who can't make up their mind'. –  Mitch Jun 9 '11 at 14:13
    
#1 is rather common for people under #3, so you must expect overlap. Having said that etymology (if we trust wikipedia, I didn't follow to the sources) points to #3. –  Unreason Jun 9 '11 at 15:15

4 Answers 4

up vote 13 down vote accepted

"letters" is a rather archaic term for what we would today call "literature".

For example, my mother got her PhD through the English department. Her degree reads: "PhD in English Letters". I remember her doing a lot of work on James Joyce.

Dictionary.com doesn't have this in their definition of letters, but they do say the following at the end:

Origin: 1175–1225; Middle English, variant of lettre < Old French < Latin littera alphabetic character, in plural, epistle, literature

(emphasis mine)

Of the three options you listed, I'd say #3 was the closest to correct.

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"Lettere" in English is what you would call "Humanities" (meant as "studies").

In Italian, "Lettere" is a university faculty where you study those subjects that refer to man and the human condition.

The main disciplines include Literature, Visual Arts, Performative Arts, linguistic disciplines, like Linguistics, Philology and Semiotics, historic disciplines, like History and its subdisciplines, Philosophy, Religion and Law.

So I'd say that "Man of letters" is someone who had to study any of those disciplines or had an academic career in those fields.

In the NOAD, it says "man of letters: a male scholar or author."

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The way I consider the phrase 'man of letters' is the most basic meaning of letters, as building blocks of any kind of writing.

Usingenglish.com, explains the idiom as

A man of letters is someone who is an expert in the arts and literature, and often a writer too.

ngram search shows that in books the phrase is used also specifically to talk about correspondence, but I take that as play on words.

EDIT: Wikpedia's entry gives etymology

The term ‘Man of Letters’ (‘belletrist’, from the French belles-lettres), has been used in some Western cultures to denote contemporary intellectual men; the term rarely denotes ‘scholars’, and is not synonymous with ‘academic’. Originally, the term implied a distinction, between the literate and the illiterate, which carried great weight when literacy was rare. It also denoted the ‘literati’ (Latin, pl. of literatus), the ‘citizens of the Republic of Letters’ in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, where it evolved into the salon, usually run by women.

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I do appreciate explanations for down-votes. –  Unreason Jun 9 '11 at 14:56
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So the answer to the question is "None of the above." Going by this etymology, a Man of Letters was someone who "knew his letters" i.e. could read and write. –  user1579 Jun 9 '11 at 14:58
    
@Rhodri, #3 is the closest. –  Unreason Jun 9 '11 at 15:10
    
Think about what it would mean to be a "man of numbers". Everything important in the life of a man of letters is made of words. –  Kate Gregory Jun 12 '11 at 16:58
    
Unreason, the reason for the downvotes: the answer here is incredibly simple and can be stated in one short sentence: "Letters" is simply the old term for "literature." A university course in "literature" was previously referred to as a course in "letters". it's just that simple and appears in many languages. Your theory about letters A-B-C, is utterly incorrect - sorry! It's that simple. (As a further point: quoting wikipedia is hopeless. Anyone who types on wikipedia, is an idiot. :) A reference from wikipedia is usually a certainty of incorrectness, in almost any field.) –  Joe Blow Jun 13 '11 at 7:42

I would assume the simple fact of being able to write is important as well: the historical context is important here. Remember that the origins of the phrase is from when a time when the ability to read and write were not nearly as common as it is today (a fact which we take for granted: our universal educational system, at least in the 1st World).

An indeed, a little research reveals that to be in fact the case. "Originally the term implied a distinction between the literate and the illiterate, which carried great weight when literacy was rare. " - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intellectual#Men_of_letters

So a "Man of Letters" stood out, not just because of their erudition, learning, and intellectual focus or (pre-)occupation, but also because they could write. An unusual ability.

Speaking of historical context, I suggest today we have a "Man (or Woman) of Emails". (I am only half joking).

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