(to) each (to) their own

Today's post, I'm happy to say, is a guest post by Maddy Argy, an A-level student who's doing (BrE) work experience with me at the University of Sussex. I've asked her to find American-British differences that she could research and have introduced her to some of the tools we linguists use. I'm happy to introduce her first post! 

To Each His Own 1946
When reading a blog post written by an American English speaker, I noticed she used the phrase to each their own which didn't sound natural to me. Previously, having lived in Britain all my life, I have primarily used and heard only each to their own.

The phrase is used in both American and British English, however most likely originated from Latin.

In the Corpus of Global Web-Based Englishto each their own is heavily used in American English, with a total of 418 in all its forms. In British English however there is a total of only 105.

Meanwhile here it's clear that each to their own is more commonly used in British English with a much larger total of 365, and only 68 of this form in American English.

So why is there such a significant difference?

In the table above from the Corpus of Historical American English we're looking at 'each to their own', which is most heavily used by speakers of British English. At a stretch it could go back as far as the 1820s, but only seems to be in popular use around the 1860s.

When looking at the American English version, it comes into scarce usage around the 1880s, but seems to gain popularity around the 1940s. After looking into where the phrase was actually used, it was all down to the release of the (BrE) film/ (AmE) movie,  'To Each His Own' in 1946 which might be able to explain the later difference considering this is how the phrase was brought to attention in America early on. 

The older British English version seems to be in most popular use in the US until around the 1980s, at which point it becomes less used and the American English version becomes more common, so this would explain why to each sounded so foreign to me.



  1. Welcome Maddy.

    Good post. I hope this comes across as constructive criticism but when I read your line "So why is there such a significant difference?" I instantly looked for the statistical testing to back it up. I realise that's not probably not something you're taught in A-Level English Language, so I put my hackles back down and read on.

    One of the things you can do quickly and easily is either avoid the word "significant" or learn how to use a Chi-squared test. This lets you test if your observations (the usage counts in the American and British Corpora) vary from the expectations (in statistical testing, the expectation is always that there is no difference, so you add up the total observed number and divide by two, you can have halves in your expected word counts even though it makes no sense in application). If you do this (things like Excel can do it for you in a matter of seconds) you'll find you get the US do use the "To each their own" form significantly (p<0.01) than the British and the British do use the "Each to their own" form significantly more (p<0.01) than the US and old fogeys like me (and your lecturers if you go on to university) will be happy.

  2. Are we sure that the two expressions are synonymous?

    For me, each to his/her/their own suggests cultivating one's own garden. Sort of 'stick to what you know'. I would expect to hear it in a discussion of taste. Sort of 'you can speak for your own taste, but you can't really talk about other people's tastes'.

    Until told otherwise, I would take to each their own to be more positive. Sort of 'we should all get what we deserve'.

    1. The Wikipedia entry for suum cuique is interesting.

      As used by Cicero and in Justinian law, it expresses a principle of justice. It collocates with a verb meaning 'attribute' or 'distribute'. Without the verb it has been adopted as a motto by the Scottish Faculty of Advocates and by various bodies in German history dedicated to chivalry or law enforcement.

      The Wiktionary entry offers two meanings similar to this I suggested. Apparently Cicero used sum cuique in two distinct constructions

      1 pulcrum est = 'is beautiful' — to each person one's own thing is beautiful
      which is more or less what I understand by each to his own

      2 tribere = 'distribute' — 'to assign each person his own thing'
      which is more or less what I guessed for to each his own

      However, the Wiktionary Latin does't seem to be exactly what Cicero wrote. According to Wikipedia it was 'Justice assigns his own thing to each person'. The Justinian quote holds that 'justice may be seen in the assignment of his own thing to each person.

      Wikipedia mentions the Russian translation каждому свойо so I asked my wife what it means. Answer - both. Sometimes it means chacun à[or is it a?] son gout, while sometimes it means 'You get what you deserve'.

      My guess is that
      • the two senses of sum cuique got muddled a long time ago
      • the first English version was each to his own
      • in America you've substituted to each his own as a closer word-for-word translation

    2. I tried to reply to this on my phone, but it doesn't appear to have gone through, so I apologize if there's any duplication.

      My (CanE with AmE influences) usage of "to each his own" does not align with your suggestion of "we should all get what we deserve"; I would say it best matches the "pulcrum est" definition you've given above.

      There's a nuance to it that I'm struggling to articulate, but its connotation falls on a spectrum between derision and the verbal equivalent of a shrug, depending on the context.

      For example, I would be ok with either of the following:
      "He really bought that pair of orange leather pants?! Well, to each his own."
      "She spent the entire trip in one city. I would have toured around more, but to each his own."

      But if you said something like "We should all order our own favorite dish; to each his own", that wouldn't work.

      I think they key is that you disagree with someone's opinion or decision, but are not bothered by it.

    3. AmE here, and I think Laura's articulated it very well. A verbal shrug when you disagree with someone's taste, but aren't bothered by it. Nothing to do with deserving anything.

    4. Laura's examples are exactly where I(a Brit) might say "each to his own".

    5. AmE here also, and Laura nailed it. -CBF

  3. As far as I know (Brit turned American) the phrases mean the same thing. Wiktionary agrees: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/to_each_his_own

    Although I am originally British, "each to his own" sounds odd to me. If I ever used it I have forgotten.

  4. Well done Maddy! Hoping to see another one or two blog posts by you :-)

  5. Welcome, Maddy, and I hope you're enjoying your work experience. I'm British, but, like David L above, would normally use "to each his/her own"; the other doesn't sound quite natural.

  6. I (AmE) believe I have never encountered anything but "to each his own", not "her", not "their". I may or may not be able to determine the meaning of the British version from context or intonation.

    1. Yes, I'm more familiar with "to each his own", though I realize its gender inflexibility has rendered it sexist. I believe the French equivalent is "chacun a son gout" -- literally "each has his [own] taste."

      The British equivalent may be used in a different context, but if I were to say to each his own I'd most likely be looking askance at someone else's stated preference ... though to avoid being cruel to that someone else I'd use it only when hearing about the preference third hand.

      In the case of outrageous or deeply eccentric preferences I might turn instead to the mildly incredulous It takes all kinds to make a world.

    2. Dick

      I believe the French equivalent is "chacun a son gout" -- literally "each has his [own] taste."

      As I wrote above, when I asked my wife what the Russian translation of sum cuique was employed to mean, she tole me

      Sometimes it means chacun à [or is it a?] son gout.

      That little accent makes a big difference

      Chacun à son goût = 'Each to his taste.'
      Chacun a son goût = 'Each has his taste.'

      I tried to check which was actually used, searching on a French dictionary site. it didn't even recognise the phrase, so I Ieft it open. Later I had time enough to look again, and I discovered the phrase in English dictionary sites. It turns out to be what I'd suspected Chacun à son goût.

      This is suspiciously like the English version I know Each to his own. I wouldn't be surprised if one was part-imitation of the other. Either the French half-copied the English (putatively British) phrase or we half-copied the French.

      In fact I'd be more likely to use the French phrase even when speaking English. Actually, I'm not aware of ever having said Each to his own and I'm certain I've never said To each his own.

      I do believe I've heard — not read — each to his own in the past, on the lips of people considerably older than me. As I'm now in my seventies, I presume the people who used the phrase are largely deceased.

      Like you I see my equivalent as a comment on somebody else's taste. But it wouldn't be an askance look, just a mild

      'Well, that wouldn't be my choice, but if that's what floats his/her/their/your boat, then fine.'

      And I'd rather expect it to be lengthened to

      Well, each to his own, I suppose.

      I leave the masculine his intact because I regard it as a very old-fashioned phrase, not really in current use, and therefore not susceptible to modernising gender-freeing.

    3. I agree - even though most Americans use "singular they" all the time, and I think did so even before feminism, this proverbial phrase always uses "his" in my experience. (The jocular "everybody and his brother" is another one, although I have heard "and their brother" occasionally.)

  7. When I was growing up, if my parents didn't want to cook or it was a lazy summer day, we would have a piecemeal dinner in which my mom might put together some cheese and crackers, apples and peanut butter, etc, and people could make a sandwich or grab leftovers if they wanted. This was called "tweech" (I've never used it in writing, so I've chosen to spell it as we'd pronounce it), which came from "to each his own" (to each --> tooeach --> tweech). In other words, everyone could have what they wanted according to their preferences.

    I believe this colloquialism was a term my mom (AmE) got from her own parents, and perhaps it goes back farther than that, but I've never met anyone else who uses it! The first time I told my partner we could have "tweech" for dinner, he looked utterly baffled.

    1. 'Tweech' is an excellent word! I may start using it myself.
      As an aside, my own mother's term for such a meal was 'bread and pull it'. It's an expression that always mystified me somewhat.

    2. Wow! "Tweetch" and "bread and pull it." My mother would have used the boring term "potluck" to describe such a meal. Fascinating there's so much variety here for such a seemingly trivial occurrence.

    3. Grhm- what an evocative name for it!
      Dick- that's interesting, as I'd only use potluck to mean multiple people from different households contributing dishes towards a shared meal (but I'll leave it at that, as I know Lynne's done an excellent post on the topic in the past!)

    4. For me there is a difference there is between potluck, the communal meal, and '(getting? taking?) pot luck' They have different stress patterns.

    5. It was called yoyo night in my house...you're on your own.

  8. As an American, "to each his own" is the phrase I've always heard and used. That phrase is probably not PC in this day and age. I still use it though.

  9. Hi Maddy. Well done for this. I couldn't have done this back in the day and I now have my PhD, so the future looks very bright for you. You will learn an awful lot from Lynne. Enjoy the time with her. Keep up the good work. You have great potential and write maturely and professionally. Good luck!


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)