Hitting a ‘purple patch’ and employing ‘purple prose’: I vaguely assumed the phrases were related, but had not realised they essentially have the same origin. Probably because one is used in a positive sense (i.e. for a period of good luck and success in one’s life) and one used pejoratively (i.e. about language, particularly written, that is overly ornate and flamboyant).
Purple, of course, has its historical origins as a ‘special’ colour because not only is it relatively rare in nature, but the cost of the dye required for purple clothing was prohibitive. Dating back to around 1900 BCE, originally produced in the Phoenician city of Tyre, purple dye was made from the mucus of seas nails (Bolinus brandaris), with at least 12,000 of the molluscs needed to produce enough dye for a modestly-sized Roman toga.
In fact, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), anyone but the Queen’s close family members were forbidden to wear the colour. This was an element of the so-called Sumptuary Laws, which included regulation of the colours, fabrics, and clothing that different strata of English society could and could not wear. This elitism was discontinued in the 17th century, but the use of purple remained an indulgence. Not until 1856, when English chemist William Henry Perkin accidentally discovered a synthetic purple dye, did the hue become more widely available. However, purple as a symbol of wealth and luxury—and indeed luxuriance—continues to this day.
Hence the phrase ‘purple prose’—or ‘purple patches’ or ‘purple passages’, to describe florid and over-elaborate literary passages. In fact, ‘purple patches’ were not used in relation to anything other than writing until the 20th century.
I have been ‘purple’ myself, at times used language that has been called “too descriptive”. Because of the type of writing I do, I have aimed to saturate the senses. The sensual, surely, must precede the sexual, not to mention the intellectual. Recently, too, I have been completing something that is, quite consciously, produced in a slightly distended “Gothic” style, set in the 19th century.
A dense, sensual style is not for everyone. Not for those that prefer the stripped-back prose style of, say, Ernest Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy (as a couple of obvious examples). Is a pared-down style more ‘masculine’? That’s a whole different discussion. Though not necessarily, I think. Simplicity of style can be used for different purposes, to show a child’s perspective, for instance.
In defence of those who enjoy reading (and perhaps writing in) a more intense, extravagant language style, I recall the words of Angela Carter, whose literature was—is—so vivid and darkly imaginative: “…I’m an arty person. OK, I write overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose. So f*cking what?”
Felix Mittermeier via Pexels
Alena Koval via Pexels.