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Salad days

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.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 23 Jun. 2001
Last updated 27 Oct. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 27 October 2002.