Purple Prose

From the song "Unbelievable" by the British band EMF (1990).

A generally pejorative term for writing or speech characterized by ornate, flowery, or hyperbolic language is known as purple prose. Contrast it with plain style.

"The double meaning of the term purple is useful," says Stephen H. Webb. "[I]t is both imperial and regal, demanding attention, and overly ornate, ostentatious, even marked by profanity" (Blessed Excess, 1993).
Bryan Garner notes that purple prose "derives from the Latin phrase purpureus pannus, which appears in the Ars Poetica of Horace (65-68 B.C.)" (Garner's Modern American Usage, 2009).

Examples and Observations:

  • "Once in the hands of Duncan Nicol it was translated, as by consecration in the name of a divinity more benevolent than all others, into pisco punch, the wonder and glory of San Francisco’s heady youth, the balm and solace of fevered generations, a drink so endearing and inspired that although its prototype has vanished, its legend lingers on, one with the Grail, the unicorn, and the music of the spheres.”
    (Columnist Lucius Beebe, Gourmet magazine, 1957; quoted by M. Carrie Allan in "Spirits: Pisco Punch, a San Francisco Classic Cocktail With Official Aspirations." The Washington Post, October 3, 2014)
     
  • "Outside pockets of euphoria in Burnley, Hull and Sunderland, fans have been wallowing in liquor-soaked self-pity as the chill hand of failure gripped them by the neck and flung them mercilessly onto the scrap heap of broken dreams. (Please forgive my purple prose here: as a red of the Stretford variety I am perhaps inappropriately using this week's digest as catharsis, but I'll move on, I promise.)"
    (Mark Smith, "The Northerner: United in Grief." The Guardian, May 28, 2009)
     
  • "Uncle Tom's Cabin suffers from padding (what the French call remplissage), from improbable plot contrivances, mawkish sentimentality, unevenness in prose quality, and 'purple prose'--sentences like, 'Even so, beloved Eva! fair star of thy dwelling! Thou art passing away; but they that love thee dearest know it not.'"
    (Charles Johnson, "Ethics and Literature." Ethics, Literature, and Theory: An Introductory Reader, 2nd ed., edited by Stephen K. George. Rowman & Littlefield, 2005)
     
  • Characteristics of Purple Prose
    "The culprits of purple prose are usually modifiers that make your writing wordy, overwrought, distracting, and even silly. . . .

    "In purple prose, skin is always creamy, eyelashes always glistening, heroes always brooding, and sunrises always magical. Purple prose also features an abundance of metaphors and figurative language, long sentences, and abstractions."
    (Jessica Page Morrell, Between the Lines. Writer's Digest Books, 2006)
     
  • In Defense of Purple Prose
    "Certain producers of plain prose have conned the reading public into believing that only in prose plain, humdrum or flat can you articulate the mind of inarticulate ordinary Joe. Even to begin to do that you need to be more articulate than Joe, or you might as well tape-record him and leave it at that. This minimalist vogue depends on the premise that only an almost invisible style can be sincere, honest, moving, sensitive and so forth, whereas prose that draws attention to itself by being revved up, ample, intense, incandescent or flamboyant turns its back on something almost holy--the human bond with ordinariness. . . .

    "It takes a certain amount of sass to speak up for prose that's rich, succulent and full of novelty. Purple is immoral, undemocratic and insincere; at best artsy, at worst the exterminating angel of depravity. So long as originality and lexical precision prevail, the sentient writer has a right to immerse himself or herself in phenomena and come up with as personal a version as can be. A writer who can't do purple is missing a trick. A writer who does purple all the time ought to have more tricks."
    (Paul West, "In Defense of Purple Prose." The New York Times, Dec. 15, 1985)
  • The Pejoration of Purple Prose
    "The idiom was originally a purple passage or purple patch, and the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1598. The rhetorical sense in English comes from the Ars Poetica of Horace, specifically from the phrase purpureus pannus, a purple garment or raiment, the color purple symbolizing royalty, grandeur, power.

    "Purple prose doesn't seem to have become wholly pejorative until the twentieth century, when steep declines in the vocabulary and reading comprehension of college-educated Americans caused a panic in the education establishment and the newspaper industry, which together launched a campaign against prose that displayed royalty, grandeur, and power. This led to the disappearance of the semicolon, the invention of the sentence fragment, and a marked increase in the use of words like methodological."
    (Charles Harrington Elster, What in the Word? Harcourt, 2005)

    See also: