On our (green and) salad days…
Sometimes inspiration strikes…and sometimes someone else’s inspiration strikes me. The latter was the case recently, when a friend brought up my "salad days" — admittedly to describe youthful days long since passed — and immediately followed his useful advice with the question, "I wonder if I’m using ‘salad days’ properly?"
Lamentably, he was. "Salad days" was coined by Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra, where Cleopatra explains her youthful affair with Julius Caesar as something that happened in
My salad days,
When I was green in judgment…
Though it seems clear in Shakespeare’s formulation that Cleopatra is referring to her errant judgment as a young woman, I’ve seen speculation that the phrase might refer to an earlier time of abundance and means, when fresh vegetables—a relatively scarce resource—would have been readily accessible only to the rich… or even that salad is a kind of food specifically made for the wealthy, as Jenny Lawson slyly surmises in her memoir Furiously Happy:
I find it very confusing that people refer to good days as “the salad days,"
"No one wants salad. Is it because rich people always serve salad even though it usually gets thrown away? Does it mean that if you’re rich enough to serve food just to be thrown away then you’ve “made it”? Because that makes sense.
Such misinterpretations are made even more likely today because use of the phrase has changed. For a time when the description suddenly and mysteriously became popular in the mid-1800s, it was most often employed more exactly as "green and salad days." But the "green" part faded away as the usage became broader, coming to sometimes be a shorthand not, or not only, referring to the impetuosity of youth, but to youth’s vigor and, from that to generally just "better days than today," which usually includes, or at least implies, a time of greater ability and means.
But this wasn’t the original intent and isn’t the most common usage to this day, more than 400 years later. As Jim Gaffigan puts it in his comedic memoir Food, A Love Story:
Bill Shakespeare himself, another actor who did some writing, used the term “salad days” to mean “green in judgment,” which pretty much describes perfectly the people who actually like salads.
Which isn’t to say, despite its impressive origins, that "salad days" is the best choice of description. My highly unscientific survey of friends and acquaintances leads me to believe that it’s close to becoming one of the worst kind of cliches: the kind that is repeatedly used and repeatedly misunderstood.
Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage is unsparing in its assessment:
Whether the point is that youth, like salad, is green and raw, or that salad is highly flavoured and youth loves high flavours, or that innocent herbs are youth’s food as milk is babes’ and meat is men’s, few of those who use the phrase could perhaps tell us; if so, it is fitter for parrots’ than for human speech.
Despite Fowler’s advice, one of the most popular British plays of the 1950s—and in multiple revivals since—was Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds’ dramatic confection Salad Days whose title is explained in the song "Time of My Life," which features the lyrics:
We’re young and we’re green as the leaf on the tree
For these are our salad days
The musical was so well known that it proved the perfect foil for Monty Python who, in a 1972 episode of their endlessly re-watchable sketch show Monte Python’s Flying Circus, did their own send-up of "Salad Days" as it might have been interpreted by Sam Peckinpah—"Bloody Sam" to admirers and enemies alike—director of legendarily violent films including Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch.
Besides being a conveniently green foodstuff for Shakespearean imagery, "salad" is itself an interesting word that boasts a happy bit of further etymological serendipity. Many words emerged from the Proto Indo-European root sal-, meaning salt, including salary, salsa and soused, but also by roundabout ways halide and quite possibly halcyon, meaning calm and peaceful, a word we most often hear now as part of the phrase "halcyon days," the erudite alternative to "salad days."
As our salad days must pass, so also must our time together. For more on "salad days," including links to the portrait of himself that Dylan Thomas characterized as "a frog in his salad days," video of the Peckinpah-ish Monty Python sketch and examples of the phrase in use by writers as various as Margaret Atwood and Steve Coogan, or to re-listen to this, or any other, Katexic WORD segment, point your favorite browser to katexic.com/kuac