If getting laurels is good, and being a Nobel laureate is good, how did we get to "resting on your laurels" being bad?
Highly-accomplished people are often praised for their deeds. When you use the phrase “to rest on your laurels” to describe a person’s character, though, it implies that the person is slacking off, relying on their good reputation or achievements as an excuse to not put in the effort at their current task. What about “resting on laurels” implies this type of laziness?
Let’s start by defining what a laurel is. Laurel is a type of tree ("laurus nobilis”), whose leaves are also known as sweet bay: Yes, the same as those bay leaves you use for cooking!
Besides their culinary or ornamental uses, the idea of a crown of laurels stems from the Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo, ruler of the sun and god of music. When Apollo wanted to woo the nymph Daphne, she turned into a laurel tree instead of returning his affections. Though he was rejected, Apollo decided to don a crown of laurel leaves in her honor. In ancient Greek tradition, these crowns were gifted to athletic champions and seen as symbols of status and victory.
This connotation of glory lives on in the word “laureate,” first coined in the late 14th century, meaning "crowned with laurels.” The phrase “laureat poete” then pops up in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” as part of “The Knight’s Tale.” The modern translation of this reads:
With laurel crowned as conqueror
There he lived in joy and honour.
The phrase switched to “poet laureate” when penned by Ben Jonson in the 16th century.
In 1668, England established the position of Poet Laureate, and esteemed poet, literary critic, and playwright John Dryden was the first to hold this honor. Poet laureates still exist in the United Kingdom, and the honorees are bestowed a stipend and “a butt of sack,” aka. a barrel of sherry! The United States also has a Poet Laureate position, and that person is appointed annually by the Librarian of the United States Congress. Outside of poetry, Nobel Prize winners are also known as laureates.
So a crown of laurels and being a laureate are marks of distinction, not associated with slacking off or riding on your reputation. The expression “to rest on one’s laurels'” evolved in the 18th century as part of an earned victory or a well-deserved retirement speech: that the honored person had accomplished so much, they finally earned a rest!
Later in the 19th century, this expression crossed over from laudatory to critical. In 1825, the review magazine “The Literary Chronicle” praises the work of Maria Edgeworth and ends in a gentle jest:
We do not affect to wish she should repose on her laurels and rest satisfied; on the contrary, we believe that genius is inexhaustible ... For Miss Edgeworth there must be no rest on this side of the grave.
“Don’t rest so soon, Miss Edgeworth,” the reviewer seemed to say, “because your career isn’t over yet!” Odd that this phrase is rooted in a classic story honoring a woman, and then the meaning changed when a woman is told she cannot rely on her past accomplishments.
Today, “to rest on one’s laurels” has a critical edge: that an accomplished person simply relied on their reputation instead of putting in the effort. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, common phrases using “laurels” in this way include “to reap, [or] win one's laurels” and “to look to one's laurels: to beware of losing one's pre-eminence.” There is a cautionary element to this idiom, warning that people who have risen high can also fall if they aren’t diligent.
Nevertheless, we can return to the glory days of laurels. Figuratively and literally, we should give ourselves a break now and then when we need one. And maybe the next time you celebrate an accomplishment, think of cooking a tasty lentil stew using a bay leaf in tribute to its honorable history.
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