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What does "to Each His Own" Mean?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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Both the title of a 1946 motion picture and American standard song, the phrase to each his own generally means each person is entitled to his or her own personal tastes and opinions. This could apply to a person's choice of romantic partner or musical preference or political leanings or any other pursuit. After all, what might appear offensive or unappealing to some may be quite the opposite for others.

There are a few other common sayings that also cover this non-judgmental territory, including whatever floats your boat, different strokes for different folks, and the Biblical aphorism judge not, lest ye also be judged. In this sense, any of these terms might be used to sign off on an improbable romance or unexpected affiliation.

The phrase itself, or at least a popular variant, can be traced back to ancient Greece, where it became a popular sentiment in the legal profession. In order for a society to work well together, there had to be a certain level of permissiveness and tolerance. This is the key principle behind the reluctance of lawmakers to legislate morality. What may be offensive or immoral to one group may be perfectly permissible in another, so the concept discourages efforts to create artificial boundaries where personal freedoms are concerned.

There are also several Biblical references to the concept. Jesus' parable concerning servants given various sums of money (talents) according to each servant's value to his master is one example of each individual being rewarded or punished according to his or her own merits. The Apostle Paul also refers to believers in Christ receiving gifts of the spirit according to his or her own virtues and abilities.

There some highly controversial uses of the phrase as well. Karl Marx wrote in his preface to the Communist Manifesto that each worker should receive compensation according to his own contributions to the State. This concept can be traced back to ancient Grecian philosophy as well. When the Nazi regime built the concentration and work camps to hold Jewish prisoners, the gates were often emblazoned with two popular expressions: Arbeit Macht Frei (Work will make one free) or Jedem das Seine, which literally translated to "To each his own," but idiomatically meant "Each person gets what he deserves."

The sentiment behind the modern expression suggests an admirable level of tolerance for those who find love or happiness or contentment in ways that do not necessarily mesh with our own beliefs or preferences.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon983766 — On Jan 02, 2015

To each, his own... Live and let live. I love that quote.

By indemnifyme — On Aug 26, 2012
@JessicaLynn - It might be impossible to tell who used this phrase first, but we know for sure that both Karl Marx and the Nazis used variants of this phrase. I hate to sound hysterical, but I think I might stop using this phrase all together.

I personally don't want to use any phrase that's related to Nazi Germany, and I'm sure a lot of people wouldn't want to use this phrase either if they knew about it's use in concentration camps. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if this phrase was considered very scandalous to use in Germany for that reason.

By JessicaLynn — On Aug 26, 2012

It's very interesting that this phrase has so many origins! It seems to have been popularized by a movie, but it was also somewhat based on the Bible or possibly an ancient Greek phrase. Honestly I think it's impossible to tell who used it first!

By Pharoah — On Aug 25, 2012

@ceilingcat - I agree with you that people seldom use this phrase in a real spirit of acceptance and understanding. However, I don't really think saying "to each his own" is nicer than saying you don't like something. Because you're already saying it in a passive aggressive kind of way. I think it's kinder to just tell the truth!

By ceilingcat — On Aug 25, 2012

I know the phrase "to each his own" is supposed to denote tolerance and understanding, but I hardly ever hear people use it in that context. Usually when I hear someone say "to each his own," it's because they don't like something, but don't want to say so.

Saying "to each his own" is a nicer way of saying, "I don't really like that, but it's OK that you do," rather than just saying, "I didn't like it."

By SteamLouis — On Aug 24, 2012

@wavy58-- I don't think you should let this phrase get to you like that. I'm sure you wanted your uncle to like and appreciate your music. But people are always going to have differing interests and you can't force people to like and agree with everything you are interested in.

Your uncle could have said something that was more positive, I do agree with that. But when someone tells me "each to his own," I try not to take it personally. Even if that person doesn't have the same opinion as me, I feel that he or she is open-minded and respectful. Because someone who is not tolerant of others would say things much more demeaning and belittling. This phrase isn't all that negative.

By donasmrs — On Aug 23, 2012

@anon85924-- That's interesting. It actually reminds me of a concept that's present in many religious beliefs. The concept is that every person is responsible for their own actions and not anyone else's. So no one can take upon someone else's virtue or sin onto themselves.

So maybe, "to each his own" origin was also referring to how we don't need worry about what other people are doing because we won't be held accountable for it.

By serenesurface — On Aug 22, 2012

I know that "to each his own" is about tolerance and understanding. But I think that we are able to take this stand if what we're referring to is still within limits of our tolerance.

I can tolerate people when it comes to things like religious or political beliefs, hobbies and habits. For example, I don't drink but I have many friends who do and that's fine. I don't judge them for that because we all have a reasoning behind what we do. So I just say "to each his own" when it comes to drinking.

But there are other issues where I have a harder time saying "to each his own." Like I would not tolerate a roommate that was doing illegal drugs at our home. So even though I am a tolerant and understanding person, I don't take this stand with every issue I come across.

By OeKc05 — On Aug 22, 2012

My grandfather used the “to each his own” idiom when my sister brought home her long-haired boyfriend who was in a rock band. My grandfather grew up in a time when both long hair on a man and rock music were considered evil, so he instantly disliked the guy.

However, he realized that my sister was an adult and there was nothing he could do about it. If he said anything to discourage the relationship, he would just alienate her. So, he just commented, “To each his own.”

I think that this was his way of removing himself from the situation. He recognized her freedom to choose whom to date, and though he would never understand why she had picked this guy, he wouldn't protest.

By Perdido — On Aug 21, 2012

@wavy58 – That is harsh. I also feel like when someone says, “To each his own,” they're saying, “I can't believe you like this, because I think it is terrible.”

This is how I feel whenever I ask someone their opinion about something that I like or approve of and they come back with this phrase. However, there are some instances in which it can be used in a way that isn't hurtful.

For example, if you love chocolate cake, but your friend loves vanilla instead, she might say, “To each his own,” and you most likely would not be offended. I happen to hate the taste and texture of cheese, and I recognize that this is very rare, so I am never hurt when someone says this phrase to me in reference to this.

By wavy58 — On Aug 21, 2012

My uncle always used this phrase in a slightly condescending manner. He had a slight air of superiority about him, and though he insisted everyone was entitled to their own opinions, we knew that he really meant he thought we were beneath him.

For example, I invited him to hear my band play at a local arts festival. We had a big following, and I thought he would really like our sound.

When we had finished playing, I asked him what he thought, and he said, “Well, to each his own,” meaning that he didn't like us, even though other people did. This really hurt me.

By anon189811 — On Jun 24, 2011

similar to "mind your own business."

By anon131032 — On Nov 30, 2010

Can't it also be said of "like attracts like"?

By love2learn — On Jun 04, 2010

"To each his own" is attributed to Cicero, Roman author, orator, and politician (106 BC -43 BC).

By tellastory — On Jun 03, 2010

A little trivia for you here. There is a 1946 film titled "To Each His Own." It starred Olivia de Havilland and John Lund. The movie tells the story of Jody Norris (de Havilland), who falls in love with a pilot (Lund). He goes off to fight in World War I, leaving Jody to give birth to their son. In her attempt to keep his birth a secret, she loses him to another family and spends her life loving him from afar. de Havilland won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her work in this film.

By anon85924 — On May 22, 2010

The phrase actually originally referred to justice as in: "To each what he deserves."

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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