Q&A: The origin of “purple patch”

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're in a purple patch…

Q: Hi AWC, I have a colour question this week.

A: Ooooh, intriguing.

Q: Are you familiar with having “a purple patch”?

A: Look, this isn’t really that sort of column. But first, if it’s red wine, you’ll want some baking soda…

Q: No, I’m not talking about a stain. The phrase!

A: Ah yes, okay. To be in or go through a “purple patch” is typically to go through a period of success and good fortune. Often used in relation to sports teams and is mainly found in British English rather than American.

Q: That’s the one!

A: Great. So what’s the question?

Q: Surely you know what I’m going to ask?

A: Why is it called a patch?

Q: Oh ha ha. I want to know why the patch is purple.

A: Fair enough. And it’s a good question. After all, we often think of success as being more of a golden complexion.

Q: That’s right.

A: To understand this, first we need to understand the colour purple.

Q: Oh, the 1982 Pulitzer-Prize-winning coming-of-age book by Alice Walker that led to the 1985 Steven Speilberg film starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey?

A: No, just the colour itself.

Q: Ah, my bad.

A: The name purple actually comes from Latin “purpura” and earlier from “porphyra” – the Greek name for a sea snail (known today as a murex). This snail produced a coloured dye that was very desirable but difficult to extract. The dye was named ‘Tyrian purple’ after the Tyre region of Lebanon in which it was extracted.

Q: Wow, and here I was thinking all you had to do was mix blue and red.

A: No doubt due to its rarity, this purple colour was held in high regard – reserved only for the robes of emperors and distinguished statesmen in Roman times. Later, starting with Queen Elizabeth I, it also became known as ‘royal purple’ and was used only for royalty.

Q: Oh, so is that why singer Prince wore it?

A: Haha, no. although his was indeed a short-lived purple reign.

Q: Nice. So, we’ve looked at purple. But what about the patches? Is that also fabric-related?

A: No. From the 16th century, the idea of a “purple patch” was actually related to lavish writing – used to describe “an irrelevant and excessively ornate passage.”

Q: Oh, my friends Bob and Sarah have one of those off their living room – all gold and marble, but it doesn’t go anywhere since they did renovations.

A: No, not a hallway. A passage of writing.

Q: Ah, yep, knew that. Carry on.

A: This kind of “lavishly figurative, rhythmic and overwrought” writing was also known as “purple prose” and typically added for dramatic effect.

Q: A lofty colour to describe lofty language.

A: Exactly. Even today, beyond royalty, purple is still linked to luxury or premium products – often with gold.

Q: Sure, but I’m still struggling with how flowery language came to mean a lucky streak?

A: Good point. Through the 1700s and 1800s, written works continued to be critiqued in such a purplish way – even describing collections of Queen Elizabeth I’s own writing as having “purple passages”.

Q: Bob and Sarah wallpapered over theirs…

A: But by around 1900, the term was no longer confined to lavish writing, instead associated more with a period of lavish living – such as having good fortune or heightened creativity. Newspapers of the time refer to “a purple patch of history” in much the same way we’d speak of a “golden era”.

Q: Purple and gold again!

A: That’s right. You can see why a certain chocolate maker has gone to great lengths to protect that look.

Q: Willy Wonka?

A: No, not him. Although, on that note, golden ticket winner Violet Beauregarde did end up a rather purpurescent colour.

Q: Ouch.

A: Anyway, as was seen with many idioms around the turn of the 20th century, it was sports writers who took sayings and made them popular. This likely is how “purple patch” came to be associated with sports. But actors also might go through such a patch, or anyone experiencing a streak of quantifiable good fortune.

Q: Hey, all this talk of purple reminds me of an X-Men joke.

A: Okay, let’s hear it.

Q: Why did Magneto stop wearing his purple suit?

A: Umm….

Q: Because the days of fuschia passed!

A: Oh dear. That’s rather esoteric. Do you have one that everyone will get?

Q: Okay. What did the green grape say to the purple grape?

A: …

Q: “Breathe man, BREATHE!”

A: Are you sure you didn’t spill red wine earlier?

 

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