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I seem to remember that it involves the word "observe", but I can neither recall it nor find it in a thesaurus.

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up vote 24 down vote accepted

You are probably thinking of more honored in the breach than the observance, which can be found on phrases.org and on wiktionary under "honor in the breach":

(idiomatic) (of a rule, law, or policy) to demonstrate by breaking or breaching  (wiktionary)

This is usually thought to mean a rule which is more often broken than observed. The context of the play [Hamlet] shows the real meaning as 'it is more honorable to breach than to observe'. (phrases.org)

Personally I find phrases.org's "real meaning" to be poorly phrased; it should say something like "the original intent of the phrase was to point out that it is more honorable to break certain rules than to obey them." The quote is from Hamlet, specifically when Hamlet was observing that it was customary for his stepfather to get all liquored up and engage in shenanigans. He then says

...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.

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4  
Definitely never heard that. – DCShannon Mar 15 at 22:13
    
There are several different renditions of that basic phrase, though I can't offer any good alternatives at the moment. – Hot Licks Mar 15 at 22:16
    
I've always wondered if that was the actual origin of the phrase "to the manner born". (A phrase which nowadays is incredibly confused, since 90% of people don't realize "to the manor born" is a clever play on "to the manner born".) – Joe Blow Mar 16 at 13:14
    
@Helion - yes, that web site's "real meaning" comment is nutty. – Joe Blow Mar 16 at 13:17

Rules that are not normally followed, or 'observed', are called 'unobserved'.

I can't find any reference that defines the phrase "unobserved rule", but searching for "unobserved rule" returns plenty of example usages.

'Unobserved' doesn't always get its own entry in a dictionary, as it's just a standard modification of 'observed'. It's negating this meaning of 'observe' (from M-W):

1: to conform one's action or practice to (as a law, rite, or condition) : comply with

So an "unobserved rule" is one that was not or is not followed.

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A rule that has little or no practical use and is usually ignored is a dead letter. The other American English meaning, "an unclaimed item of mail," is uncommon in British English. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/dead-letter

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I'm thinking "dumb laws" or as Wikipedia says "also called weird laws, strange laws, futile laws, or unnecessary laws" may be similar terms.

laws that are perceived to be useless, humorous or obsolete, i.e. no longer applicable (in regard to current culture or modern law).

My first thought was "old dumb laws" (perhaps laws that were created before automobiles were commonplace for example).

Google has a lot to say about dumb laws actually, but as Wikipedia says they're probably mostly hoaxes or exaggerated.

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