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Practising today for my forthcoming role as radgie gadgie, I was having a little rant about modern youth: "they don't know they're born!"

This seems to me rather a strange phrase to describe someone who is, or appears to be, more fortunate than others feel is just or seemly; after all, everyone realises they were born at some point (one hopes). So does anyone know how this phrase came about? Searching the internets provides lots of examples of usage, but no hint of the origin, of this phrase.

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Speculation: Could it refer to the apparent ignorance of having been born like everybody else and not of having been born at all? –  Alexander Kosubek Sep 13 '12 at 11:52
    
I would guess it comes from the idea that the younger you are the easier life is. If you don't know you're born, then presumably you think you're still in your mother's womb, where life is least stressful. –  Matt Эллен Sep 13 '12 at 12:39
    
It's more 'they don't know how lucky they are' (or at least that is how I use it) –  user54169 Oct 15 '13 at 9:33
    
I wasn't aware till now that this was just a British expression but it's very common here and means exactly what Guest Chap says. –  Mynamite Oct 15 '13 at 11:12
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3 Answers 3

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As far as I can tell from Google Books, this is an exclusively British idiom. It is used of those (primarily the rich and the young) who enjoy freedom from want or responsibility and behave as if they are unconscious that they were merely born into this freedom and that others (the poor and adults) are not so fortunate.

The earliest appearance of the phrase in the Google Books corpus is in the works of Eden Phillpotts, who uses it in five different novels published between 1912 and 1919. In the earliest of these it seems already to be proverbial, in a sense very close to today's usage:

1912 The Forest on the Hill, in the context of a discussion of the 'greedy rich' who have no inclination to practise charity: "Nothing hides the truth of life from people like money," said Miss Snow. "I don't like rich people. They only try to please one another. 'Tis natural, no doubt. There's a gulf fixed between poor and rich, and, so long as there be poor and rich, 'twill never be crossed. The rich don't know they're born; but that's the first thing the poor find out." "Doan't be too hard on the rich," said Jacob. "'Tis only one in a hundred of them properly enjoys his money. They suffer from all sorts of complaints we can only laugh at."

In later works Phillpotts extends the sense to broader deficiencies of consciousness:

1913 The Joy of Youth Well, honestly, these fellow creatures of yours don't know they're born. That's the solemn truth about them. Therefore, being unconscious, they don't exist as men and women at all. They are of the company of cattle and turnips.

1915 Old Delabole "Natural creatures, without the inner light, never lose it [self-respect]. And how much the more ought we with souls to keep it." "The creatures don't know they're born," answered Ned. "So they can't lose what they haven't got. Look at them bullocks in the field. Not one of them knows he's a bullock."

1918 The Spinners "It's certainly difficult to decide about some people, whether they're alive or dead. Some make you doubt if they were ever alive." "A good many certainly don't know they're born ; and plenty don't know they're dead," he declared. " To be in your grave is not necessarily to be dead, and to be in your shop, or office, needn't mean that you're alive," admitted the lady.

But in 1919 he seems to revert to the narrower sense:

1919 Storm in a Teacup, in the context of a discussion of a broken marriage: "There was all sunshine and no shade, and Medora, so far as I can see, instead of blessing her good luck got sick of so much uneventful happiness, like a child gets sick of too much barley-sugar." [...] "We middle-aged people can always see the young looking for trouble. 'Tis part of their natural curiosity and daring. They don't know they're born in fact, and that's a thing you can't teach a person."

It appears to me that the phrase emerges around the beginning of the 20th century, with pretty much its current meaning. As to where it came from, I suspect evangelical Christianity's emphasis on mankind's being born into sin and misery—"Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward" Job 5:7—plays a large role, as in this hymn, from an 1806 collection reprinted throughout the 19th century:

O WHAT a pleasure 'tis to see
Christians in harmony agree,
To teach the rising race to know
They're born in sin, expos'd to woe!

The root meaning seems to be "They don't know what they're born to".

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I've never heard the phrase before. The quotes you give all seem to imply a meaning like "not aware that they're alive" or "not conscious of their own existence", or maybe "not aware of their position in the world or how they came to be where they are". I don't see any connection to the statement from Job, not sure what your point is there. –  Jay Sep 13 '12 at 14:24
    
I note that radgie gadgie is also a slang term, one apparently from the northeast of England, and which may not be recognized elsewhere. –  tchrist Sep 13 '12 at 14:33
    
@Jay My argument was entirely too elliptical. See if it makes any more sense now. –  StoneyB Sep 13 '12 at 16:38
    
@StoneyB Well, at least I see where you're coming from now. The connection still seems pretty tenuous to me, but I guess if it makes sense to you it might have made sense to Mr Phillpotts. –  Jay Sep 13 '12 at 19:52
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Isn't it just an intensification of They don't know anything (or as actually used, owt)?

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This does not really answer the question. If you have a different question, you can ask it by clicking Ask Question. You can also add a bounty to draw more attention to this question. –  MετάEd Sep 15 '12 at 4:42
    
No it doesn't mean this, see Guest Chap's answer. And there's no reason to suppose the only people who use it also say 'owt'. –  Mynamite Oct 15 '13 at 11:14
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Apologies as this is not really an answer but comments isn't big enough....

There may be a link with the saying to the manner born:

Hamlet complains of the drunken carousing at Elsinore to his friend Horatio, who asks “Is it a custom?” Hamlet replies that it is and adds, “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.”

“As if to the manner born” is used to praise someone’s skill: “Reginald drives the Maserati as if to the manner born” (as if he were born with that skill).

“To the Manor Born” was the punning title of a popular BBC comedy, which greatly increased the number of people who mistakenly supposed the original expression had something to do with being born on a manor. Perhaps because of the poetically inverted word order in “manner born” the expression tends to occur in rather snooty contexts. Nevertheless, the correct expression is “to the manner born.”

Hamlet, as a native, is familiar with all the local customs and recognises the reason why (ie he does know he's born). Reginald, with a fortunate mix of genes, has great driving skills. So they don't know they're born is said of anyone who inherits good fortune (riches, beauty or skill) but has not yet learned that others are not so fortunate.

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Would the downvoter like to explain? –  Mynamite Oct 15 '13 at 12:27
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