used today to describe writing
that is too ornate
. Also called a purple passage
and purple prose
. From Latin pannus purpureus
or purple patch a phrase used by the poet Horace
to suggest a bit of imperial purple cloth sewn on to a commoner fabric. The idiom dates from 1895 and is regularly defined as a conspicuous passage to highlight brilliance or effectiveness in a work that is dull, commonplace, or uninspired. Chiefly British in usage as a piece of obtrusively ornate writing.
The following example of a purple patch comes from chapter 11 of
Oscar Wilde's, The Picture of Dorian Gray,(1890):
There are few of us who have not sometimes wakened before dawn, either after one of those dreamless nights that make us almost enamoured of death, or one of those nights of horror and misshapen joy, when through the chambers of the brain sweep phantoms more terrible than reality itself, and instinct with that vivid life that lurks in all grotesques, and that lends to Gothic art its enduring vitality, this art being, one might fancy, especially the art of those whose minds have been troubled with the malady of reverie. Gradually white fingers creep through the curtains, and they appear to tremble. In black fantastic shapes, dumb shadows crawl into the corners of the room, and crouch there. Outside, there is the stirring of birds among the leaves, or the sound of men going forth to their work, or the sigh and sob of the wind coming down from the hills, and wandering round the silent house, as though it feared to wake the sleepers, and yet must need call forth sleep from her purple cave.
It Pays To Enrich Your Word Power, Reader's Digest, 1999.