A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "primrose path"?

August 23, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

What is the "primrose path"? I've heard this saying used to convey the idea of following the road to self-destruction. Is this the correct usage? Where does this saying come from?

"Primrose" is derived from the French primerole, itself derived from the Latin primula. It's been the accepted name for several flowers over the years, including the cowslip, daisy, and wild rose; the current Primula classification includes over 425 species. Since the 1400s, "primrose" has also been used metaphorically to refer to the first or best of something (primrose is popularly but erroneously thought to derive from prima rosa, "first rose"); so a "primrose path" is not necessarily simply one lined with primroses--given their metaphorical meaning, it can be seen as a description of the ultimate in loveliness.

The current connotation of "primrose path," however, come from the old wordsmith himself, Shakespeare. Never one to use an old cliché when he could coin a new one, in the 1600s he first used the term to refer to a pleasant path to self-destruction.

In Hamlet (published in 1600-1), Act I, Scene III, these words are spoken by Ophelia:

I shall the effect of this good lesson keep,
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

She is warning her brother to follow his own advice, and not take the attractive "easy path" of sin to hell, rather than the uninviting and arduous path of righteousness to heaven. Apparently fond of the phrase, four or five years later Shakespeare uses it again in Macbeth, referring to "the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire." By the early 1800s other authors had taken up the metaphor in their own work. And so today, those wishing to refer to "taking the easy path to Hell" are using the Master's line (not Cecil this time, but Bill).

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