Word Games: Purple patch

Thank God for cricket. Without it, the first days of the Year of the Cuts might have descended into deep gloom, but instead we were distracted by Down Under and its sunshine, success and sprinkler dance. Sport, when it goes well, can be so handy like that. When real life feels uncertain, it envelops you in a neat and happy narrative. Captain Andrew Strauss should be garlanded with honours just for keeping a nation's mood from a January slump.

“It's been a nice little purple patch," said Strauss of the English team. I like his modesty; he knows the purple won't last for ever, it's only a patch. The phrase comes, so the story goes, from the Latin poet Horace's Ars Poetica: pannus purpureus. Literally, it refers to the practice of an uppity Roman sewing purple cloth on to his robe to make him feel important (purple was the emperor's colour). The dye, produced first by the Phoenicians and prized by the Romans, was the most exclusive of all - the limited-edition Mulberry handbag of fashion items - and was made from the mucus secretion of sea snails. Yes, sea snails. Apparently it took no fewer than 12,000 snails to trim a single robe. Poor snails. More to the point, poor snail workers. Did they have a union? Anyway, you see why it was so special.

Since then the phrase has gone two ways - positively (as in Strauss's use, with a purple patch as a flash of glory amid the norm) and disparagingly ("purple prose" indicates overwrought language, or covering up your meaning with flowery nonsense). Horace put it like this: "If you can realistically render a cypress tree, would you include one when commissioned to paint a sailor in the midst of a shipwreck?" Which I believe, on reflection, is the kind of question we should all be asking ourselves when we wake up in the morning. There's something in it. Stick to the point.

Thankfully, English cricket's purple patch was the good kind - a burst of colour, not a pretentious dressing-up of fact, though perhaps some of the commentary fell for that. "England will be rulers of the world," trumpeted the Mirror, as it swished its purple robe.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze