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Purple Patches

Probably every school child has seen the words purple patch scrawled in red pen on her essay. When I was in Year 5, I found the phrase in the margin of what I thought was my best piece of writing. Florid, my mother said when I showed her my composition that evening. It spoils the rest of the piece.

Only decades afterwards did I wonder about the origins of the phrase. I learnt that it’s over two thousand years old, and derives from the poet Horace’s reference to purpureus pannus, ‘purple patch,’ in his Ars Poetica (1st century BC), as the purple piece of cloth that is an irrelevant insertion or grandiloquent passage into a work.

Horace also suggested that “all purple patches . . . should be deleted from literary works and put away for eight years before being reedited and published—for they could never again be recalled.”

But why the colour purple? According to the Oxford English Dictionary: “Purple cloth or clothing, especially regarded as a luxury or form of ostentation; a purple robe or garment [[often associated with royalty]]; figuratively, characterized by richness or abundance; splendid, glorious; (of emotion) deeply felt or extravagantly expressed; (of literary composition) elaborate, excessively ornate (see purple passage, purple prose, purple patch).”

What is the distinction between purple passage, purple prose and purple patch? Quoting from a variety of sources, Ken Greenwald writes (at “Purple prose may apply to an entire work or a paragraph/section of a work. Purple patch and purple passage are synonyms which describe a small section ‘patched’ into an undistinguished or unexciting/dull larger work in order to add some pizzazz – a patch of royal fabric stitched onto a garment made of otherwise unexceptional cloth.”

A slightly different take can be found at the website The Phrase Finder (see

“'Purple patches', which are also sometimes called 'purple passages' or 'purple prose', were originally a figurative reference to florid literary passages, added to a text for dramatic effect. They were the literary equivalent of adding a patch of purple material to an otherwise undecorated garment. Purple was chosen because, as well as being a distinctive colour, it was the colour reserved for emperors and other distinguished statesmen in imperial Rome. Most of the early references to 'purple patches' contain clear evidence of classical origins, many of them including Latin text.”

In a remark that manages to slight both author and editor of the book being reviewed, a critic writing for the Times Literary Supplement and quoted by Greenwald has written: “A good editor would have . . . written rude comments in the margins near the frequent passages of purple prose.”—TLS, 10 December, 2004, page 29/1.

Just as my Year 5 teacher wrote, in the margin next to my purple patch.

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