A purple patch is an episode of excellence (sometimes in the midst of
mediocrity). In addition to its usage in sports, the phrase is often
found in reference to portions of literature that are particularly
According to Thrall, Hibbard, and Holman in A Handbook to Literature,
a "purple patch" is "a piece of fine writing . . . which is intensely
colorful . . . rhythmic . . . full of imagery and figures of speech,
characterized by poetic diction."
Bishop Denis J. O'Connell High School English Department
Here's an excerpt from the definition of the word "purple" that I
found in my 1971 edition of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary:
Purple: Rhetorically, with reference to the qualities of this colour:
bright-hued, brilliant, splendid... Purple patch, passage, piece: a
brilliant or ornate passage in a literary composition (after Latin
purpureus pannus, Horace, De Arte Poetica).
The best explanation of this phrase that I have found is on a
delightful site called "The Bedtime Browser: or Why Do We Say That?"
Here is Dr. James Briggs' comment on "purple patch":
To have a purple patch means to have an exceptionally good period in,
say, a game. The origin here is a little obscure but could be based on
the fact that Roman noblemen wore purple togas. They were clearly
exceptional people, hence the analogy. Alternatively the emphasis may
be on the patch since purple and other multicoloured areas were
sometimes set into ancient illuminated texts and other ventures in
order to make them look more distinguished than they truly were. In
Horace's De Arte Poetica he says "Often to weighty enterprises and
such as profess great objects, one or two purple patches are sewn on
to make a fine display in the distance".
Dr. James Briggs: The Bedtime Browser
The published use of the phrase "purple patch" ("purpureus pannus" in
Latin) actually predates Horace. The first-century poet and
philosopher Philodemus had earlier used a Greek phrase with a similar
"[Horace's] use of the phrase 'purpureus pannus' comes from
Philodemus' similar phrase, hai porphurai, at Poem. 1 col. 49.26."
Bryn Mawr Classical Review
Search terms used:
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