Joe Abbott's Weblog

Letters home to mom

Of Saints and Salads

Posted by joeabbott on March 27, 2011

The other day I used the term Salad Days (a time of youthful naiveté or inexperience) and went looking for the source. I knew it was an expression coined by William Shakespeare but wasn’t sure in which play he penned the line; I was looking for a bit more fullness to my usage. I have a number of reference-style books in my modest collection and I reached for my 14th edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable (an online version of a very early edition is here … nearly 15MB).

And while Brewer let me down and didn’t contain reference to the sought after phrase, I bumped into the entry on Patron Saints and was fascinated by the number of professions, interests, or classifications that have patron saints!

In the list I found saints for gunners (St. Barbara), pawnbrokers (St. Nicholas … also appears to be associated with the Santa Claus story), infantrymen (St. Maurice), engineers (yay, for St. Ferdinand III), cab-drivers (St. Fiacre) and even television (St. Clare)! Now this is truly fascinating stuff!

Albeit, closer reading will weed out a few (St. Barbara, for instance, was removed from the list as her story based in myth), and others have questionable relevance to their area of patronage (St Fiacre is associated with cab-drivers because, in France, a hotel bearing his name rented carriages). Regardless, it would be hard to make this stuff up!

But that’s how a lot of information is learned … a little reading here, a little there. As I downloaded the PDF version of the Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable (noted above) and scanned for “patron saint” (the PDF/free/early version doesn’t have an entry on patron saints), I came across an entry on “Dying Sayings”.

Like the patron saints article, fascinating stuff. I hope to say something memorable like Thoreau is said to have uttered on his demise (“I leave this world without regret”), however, if the experience I had on Mt. Rainier is any indication (I tripped and was sliding head first toward an open crevasse), I’ll just utter some dark epithet.

With all that reading and goodness, it’s hard to use the phrase, but Brewer let me down on the “salad days” quote. So I reached for my second edition of the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins and the veil of ignorance was lifted.

The play in which the term salad days was used is Antony and Cleopatra; the line is spoke by Cleopatra and rues her former interest in Julius Caesar (at this point, she’s a-swoon for Mark Antony), and she intones:

My salad days,
When I was green in judgment: cold in blood …

And now, as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu said, it has all been very interesting.


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