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? Commented Sep 13, 2012 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. Commented Sep 13, 2012 at 12:39
  • It's more 'they don't know how lucky they are' (or at least that is how I use it)
    – user54169
    Commented Oct 15, 2013 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
    Commented Oct 15, 2013 at 11:12
  • Please explain this: You were ranting and used an expression you didn't know?? Then, you say it is strange?
    – Lambie
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 18:58

6 Answers 6


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".

  • 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
    Commented Sep 13, 2012 at 14:24
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    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
    Commented Sep 13, 2012 at 14:33
  • @Jay My argument was entirely too elliptical. See if it makes any more sense now. Commented Sep 13, 2012 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
    Commented Sep 13, 2012 at 19:52

The Free Dictionary gives this explanation:

To be unaware of or blind to one's own good fortune or ease of life.

Kids these days don't know they're born, being able to do everything with a tap of their phones.

Families in this country complain about their life, and then they sit down to watch TV in a warm house after a decent meal. I tell you, some people don't know they're born.

The implication is that they believe they just "popped" into existence and were not born into a family and society which nourished them and nurtured them (and likely financed them) through at least their infancy, childhood, and teens.


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.


If we start from a context that gives the meaning of the saying:

"The Joy of Youth" by Eden Phillpotts (1913) - Page 91

“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."

The general thrust is that the subject is ignorantly unaware of the vicissitudes of others.

The earliest I have found this saying is "The Lancasters and their friends", by S.J.F. 1876 - Page 127

"Why, these young fellows" with a rather contemptuous wave of his hand towards the younger preachers — “don't know they are born." 

It is tempting to think that the idea of "being born" has Christian origins, with many Bible thumpers saying such things as

"know that they/you are born again/of God/in sin, etc."

"A New Selection of Seven Hundred Evangelical Hymns" by John Dobell 1810

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

An Exposition of the New Testament, etc - Volume 3 - Page 649 John GILL (D.D., Baptist Minister, at Horsley Down.) 1809 "things not of the brethren ; for by this they know they are born to be found in devils and carnal men"*

Sermon illustrating the doctrine of the Lord, Page 364 Richard DE CHARMS · 1840

And those who think they know they are born again; can, with the utmost confidence, tell the very moment when it took place.

And all these go back seem to the The Book of Job Ch.38, in which God reminds Job of all the things He knows that Job (symbolic of mankind) doesn't.

Job:38:21: Knowest thou it, because thou wast then born? or because the number of thy days is great?

However, I suspect that the saying is no more than hyperbole, i.e. that the subject is simply ignorant of the very first and most obvious fact in life.


It first appeared in British Literature in the mid 19th Century. The exact origin is unknown but could likely have been in the rapid development of working class dialects during the Industrial Revolution.

It describes a subjects ignorance and/or lack of appreciarion of the reality/ misfortune/ sufferings of others in juxtaposition with their own reality/ good fortune/ pleasures.

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    Please add a source to support your answer.
    – JJJ
    Commented Aug 6, 2018 at 3:43

I've never researched this, but I recall my parents saying it from time to time. I was always under the impression that it referred to the fact that (especially in the usage "kids today don't know they're born") someone appears to be ignorant of the fact that the world was not born for them, rather they were born into the world. So the phrase ties into "the world owes you nothing".

To add to my reasoning for thinking that, in English speaking countries, especially since the phrase was first coined, each generation has generally had it easier (with the exception of a couple of wartime periods), and each new generation feels that something is unfair, unreasonable or unjust, that someone born even just a decade earlier wouldn't have thought twice about.

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