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I'm not a native speaker so this may be obvious to some of you. I've come across the figure of speech "to break the mould", basically meaning to do your own thing and not adhere to traditions or rules, which may or may not be obsolete. Every time I came across that phrase it was used in a positive context, rebellious maybe, but positive nonetheless.

While I get why it could be seen as a positive character trait to have your own head and not mindlessly follow everything you're told, I don't understand why this particular figure of speech would be positively connoted.

From what I understand it comes from industrial casting, where every cast part comes from the same mould so they're all the same. If one part would break such a mould, not only would it be way out of shape and unusable for any further purpose, it would probably also cause considerable damage and delays in the entire manufacturing process. Neither of those outcomes seems desirable to me in any literal or figurative sense.

Does anyone have some insight into that?

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    See idioms.thefreedictionary.com/break+the+mold Finding something like this is the sort of thing you should do yourself before asking a question here. Note: spelling "mold" is common in the US, while "mould" is common in the UK. – GEdgar May 2 at 13:29
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    On the other hand, thinking hard about a metaphor may reveal something about the values of the time and culture from which it came. If you don't look you won't know. – David D May 2 at 14:25
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    Sometimes sayings are tricky, for example, blood is thicker than water. What's familial--the blood or the water? Amniotic fluid or a vast sea? Distance or time? B.C. or A.D.? And so on... But I think one breaks a mold because something 'can't' or shouldn't be reproduced. Too perfect or too flawed? Defective or outdated? Improved or not? Or to charge more for limited editions, for example, in real life. – KannE May 2 at 17:53
  • The polarity in its connotation can partially be attributed to the polarity in the personality traits of openness and conscientiousness. High openness individuals will see it as good. High conscientiousness individuals may see it as less good or even negative. – Waylon Flinn May 2 at 20:04
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    Reminder to everyone: answer in answers, not in comments. Comments are for asking clarifying questions or suggesting improvements to the question. – V2Blast May 3 at 6:09
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The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the early uses of the phrase to Orlando Furioso, where breaking the mold means basically creating an excellent and beautiful work of nature that is made unique and unrepeatable when the mold is broken.

Natura il fece, e poi roppe la stampa.

(Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, canto 10, stanza 69.)

This is the goodly impe whom nature made, To shew her chiefest workmanship and skill, And after brake the mould against her will.

(Translation with fuller context by Sir John Harington, originally published 1591. )

So it was a form of praise for the person so formed, that nature could form no one else like that person. The connection between beauty and uniqueness persisted for a long time. Again the OED:

1786 J. Burgoyne Heiress i. ii. 11 He cannot mistake her, for when she was form'd nature broke the mould.

So the original idea was that the person created was so exemplary that nature wouldn't want to create another one. The focus was on creation and not the waste of a good mould.

The positive connotations remained in subsequent meanings of the idiom, where the focus has shifted from what was created to the more modern sense of a paradigm shift in politics or another area. For example:

1965 A. J. P. Taylor Eng. Hist. 1914–45 269 Lloyd George needed a new crisis to break the mould of political and economic habit.

Here, the "mould" seems to be the current political and economic habit, and Lloyd George (not nature) breaking the mould means breaking that habit. If you support the purpose of the person doing it, breaking the mould is good. Modern usages abound, like this news headline:

Cricket sensation on a mission to break the mould

The mould seems to be playing professional cricket as a woman, another form of breaking a habit or shifting a paradigm. Like the original usage, breaking the mould is associated with excellence, but now the person brings that about herself.

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    Great post. One criticism--the line "So the original idea was that the person created was so exemplary that nature wouldn't want to create another one. " bothered me because of the "wouldn't want to" clause. I see it more as a case of an observation: "Nature obviously broke the mold because we've never seen another", no artisan would want to break a perfect mold (as with your first example, they were forced to). +1 either way :) – Bill K May 3 at 22:05
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To expand a bit on TaliesinMerlin’s great answer: the original analogy was to casting a statue by creating a hollow mold and pouring molten metal into it. If the mold is intact, you can make an exact copy by sealing it back up and filling it with bronze again. Breaking the mold means the work of art can never be duplicated.

The British political usage seems to invert the metaphor: a dreary situation keeps repeating over and over again, like identical cast-iron parts mass-produced from the same mold. Breaking the mold stops any more duplicates from being made. That is, someone who breaks the mold (mould in British spelling) solves a recurring problem once and for all.

The third usage, where “breaking the mold” is a synonym for “breaking the restrictions,” would make literal sense if something were trapped inside a mold and needed to break it to escape. It might, at a stretch, mean breaking a mold to reveal the valuable item inside it. My best guess is that the people who use the phrase that way weren’t making any analogy to literal molds at all.

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    Some molds are single-use, and must be broken in order to remove the casted part. In that sense, the resulting cast is unique. – GalacticCowboy May 3 at 13:59
  • the lines "I am here in my mold ... I am a million different people ... I can't change my mold" in the Verve's song "Bittersweet Symphony" play with this idiom in a fascinating way. – dlatikay May 3 at 18:40
  • This is great, but I would add something about how common the third usage is. While I haven't researched it, I have never seen it used in the third way (which the OP seems to think is common) before this question. The first usage, implying something is unique or at least the last one made, is quite common and I have seen the second usage occasionally, especially in material from the UK. – TimothyAWiseman May 3 at 19:49
  • @TimothyAWiseman If you can think of a good way to estimate how common the different meanings of “breaking the mold/mould” are, I’d love to know too. A Google Ngram search, for example, cannot distinguish them. – Davislor May 3 at 20:34
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This is going to be a difficult one to justify, you don't want the history of the word but the emotive idiomacy, which may be different for every variation.

I am old enough to remember its uses and connotations prior to those most commonly given.

It is said that it became a British catchphrase in the 80's when popularised in the press meaning to put an end to a political pattern of events.

That was considered a positive result by some and negative by others.

Breaking the mould was done for many positive reasons

  1. Betterment: A newer copy of a mould would improve the quality; thus, breaking the old mould was a sign of introducing fresher qualities (positive)

  2. Weeding out the malformed: A mould with a flaw could keep producing a poor quality copy. If casting "broke" the mould it was considered a self-improvement (yes a loss, but a positive step)

  3. They broke the mould when they made them can emotively mean
    a. Thank your deity there will never be another like that (positive)
    b. Sadly there will never be another as good as them (melancholic but aspirational)

Thus we see links to the malaprop "to break [out of] the mould" where one is shrugging off stagnation - again considered a positive trait, and the one actually implied in most popular usage cases, such as changing attitudes towards gender limitations.

  • You should support your answer by citing evidence and explaining how it supports your answer. (There are usually sources that describe not just the literal meaning of the word historically, but the connotation as well.) – V2Blast May 3 at 6:13

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