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?
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.
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:
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.