Thursday, June 08, 2006

Salad Days

On the origins of the expression of 'salad days' and it's changing meaning in America. How appropriate ;-)

[Q] From Mike Bumbeck: “We here at work were tossing around hackneyed phrases this morning. Two of us thought of the phrase salad days. What is the origin of this phrase?”

[A] A nice easy one for a change. Unlike so many words and phrases, we know for certain where this one comes from. It appears in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra of 1606, in the speech at the end of Act One in which Cleopatra is regretting her youthful dalliances with Julius Caesar: “My salad days, When I was green in judgment”. So the phrase came to mean “a period of youthful inexperience or indiscretion”, though it only became popular from the middle of the nineteenth century on.

The link here is green, which had already had a meaning for a couple of centuries at least before Shakespeare’s day of someone youthful, just like the young green shoots of spring, and also of somebody who was as yet inexperienced or immature. Incidentally, for Shakespeare a salad wasn’t just lettuce with some dressing, but a much more complicated dish of chopped, mixed and seasoned vegetables (its name comes from the Latin word for salt); the word was also used for any vegetable that could be included in that dish.

However, Jan Freeman pointed out in one of her word columns for the Boston Globe back in April 2001 that the expression has shifted sense in the US in the past twenty years or so. It now often refers to a period in the past when somebody was at the peak of their abilities or earning power, in their heyday, not necessarily when they were young. The shift isn’t so hard to understand when you think how few people actually know their Shakespeare.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting, as soon as I read your title I thought of the play. I've only ever understood the term in the context that Shakespeare used it. Had I ever come across it used in its modern connotation, I would have totally misunderstood what was being said.
It's not bad enough that economic and business terms are heavily used in metaphors now, but now they have to hijack poetic terms and give them an economic or business meaning.

10:16 PM  
Blogger A. Shah said...

It's pretty hilarious that an expression with the original meaning of youthful lack of judgment and rashness, would eventually come to mean someone at the 'peak of their abilities' in the US. While I agree that it's probably mostly due to an ignorance of Shakespeare, it also reflects the relative mindset of North Americans- youthful energy, strength, and brashness always seems to trump the wisdom that comes with age. It just seems so appropriate Americans would come to view one's 'salad days' as something positive.

1:21 AM  

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