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What Does "Born to the Purple" Mean?

By Gregory Hanson
Updated May 23, 2024
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The phrase “born to the purple” is an idiom in the English language. It has roots in classical antiquity, but is still used, albeit rarely, in modern English. A man or woman of royal blood can be said to have been “born to the purple”. The phrase can also sometimes be used to refer to someone born into a very wealthy and influential family but not actually of royal blood.

In the era of classical antiquity, a particular shade of purple cloth was very difficult to make. Rare sea snails had to be collected, and this task was both tedious and more than a little dangerous. Cloth dyed this color of purple was prized very highly and was a symbol of great power in the ancient world. Sumptuary laws typically permitted only members of a royal family to wear this color, although, over time, the strength of this prohibition gradually decreased.

Other substances known for their rich purple color were also associated with royalty. Porphyry, a purple variety of marble, was widely used in Roman times to indicate imperial rank, a tradition seen in statues such as the Four Emperors, which is carved from porphyry, depicting the four tetrarchs clasping hands in a show of imperial unity. The Byzantine Empire and subsequent European monarchies and empires continued the tradition of reserving the richest purples for royal use.

A child of a royal family had the right to wear this unique color, and was thus “born to the purple”. In the Byzantine Empire, empresses retreated to give birth in chamber lined in porphyry. This fact, too may have contributed to the origin of this expression.

Societies that followed the Byzantine Empire gradually relaxed the strict limits on the use of purple. The secret of making royal Tyrian purples was also lost for a long while, which made sumptuary laws somewhat irrelevant. The expression remained, however, and “born to the purple” continued to indicate birth into status and privilege.

The industrial revolution and French Revolution gradually re-made the face of Europe and led to the gradual decline in the power of actual royalty. Children of elite families in trade, finance, government, or other areas could still be said to have been “born to the purple”. This phrase is somewhat obscure and archaic in the modern world, but can still be found in literature and popular culture and continues to indicate birth into a position of great status.

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Discussion Comments
By burcinc — On Jul 30, 2014

@Grivusangel-- Those were times when being of royal blood was very important. It's not as important now, although the wealthy do set themselves apart in many ways.

I think one day, we will see idioms like "born to the Vuitton," "born to the Versace" or "born to the Prada." This is how we know how wealthy or influential people are these days.

By donasmrs — On Jul 29, 2014

@fBoyle-- Yea, it's not a very popular phrase anymore. There is also a close variation "born in the purple." It means the same thing and probably refers to how the royalty gave birth on purple fabric. So the baby was literally born in the purple.

Although the meaning is not exactly the same, there is a similar phrase that is much more popular. It's "born with a silver spoon." I hear this idiom used very often and it basically means that someone is born to an influential or wealthy family. It means that the person is very fortunate.

By fBoyle — On Jul 29, 2014

This is a very interesting idiom. I've actually never heard it used, but then again, I don't hang out among royalty.

By Lostnfound — On Jul 29, 2014

My favorite class in English was History of the English Language, and we studied how idioms appear and then fall out of favor. It's part of the progression of language and culture. Not many younger people now understand the phrase, "Like a broken record," while most people over 30 do get the meaning.

There's just enough leftover in the culture to make "born to the purple" something one understands more by context -- like "to the manor born." Same idea.

It's a shame when some idioms become less common. They add spice and interest to the language.

By Grivusangel — On Jul 28, 2014

It's interesting how expressions come and go in the language. "Born to the purple" is not completely obsolete, but it is a little archaic.

What's really intriguing is that while many people have heard of royal robes being purple, they have no idea how rare, costly or difficult this color was to obtain. Therefore, while they may understand the meaning of the expression, they don't really have a frame of reference for how seriously this was taken.

There have been societies where color defined one's social status. Rome was one of these societies. Purple, therefore, was reserved for those of the highest social standing -- royalty.

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