Well, it sure beats curds and whey.
Dear Word Detective: Recently, I have seen certain jobs described as “plum,” most recently in relation to Urban Meyer “resigning from his plum job as Florida’s coach” (Sports Illustrated). I have no doubt that Mr. Meyer’s past and future salaries have been and will be more than sufficient to keep him and his family very well fed, but I was curious as to why prestigious employment would be dubbed “plum.” And how did a little purple fruit become an adjective?– Charlene.
Hey, some of our best adjectives got their start as fruits. Political commentary in the US these days, for instance, would be far less insightful without the ever-useful adjective “bananas.”
OK, back to “plum.” A “plum” is, of course, the edible reddish-purple fruit of the plum tree (genus Prunus), a bit larger than a golf ball and typically very juicy and sweet. Plums are often used as dessert fruits and in puddings and wines, and, when dried for longer-term storage, are called “prunes.” (I mention that because I was in my late teens before I found out that raisins are actually dried grapes. I think I thought raisins grew on bushes.) The root of the English word “plum” is its Latin equivalent, “prunum,” which in turn was adapted from Greek, which apparently borrowed it from an unknown Asian language. “Plum” first appeared in Old English as “plume.” It’s not clear how the “pr” of its roots (retained in “prune”) became “pl,” but weird things happen over the course of centuries.
Plums are a popular fruit because of their sweetness and versatility, so it’s not surprising that long ago, when fresh fruit of any kind was regarded by the average person as a treat, “plum” became a popular figure of speech for something very good. Or very, very good. One odd figurative use of “plum” in the early 18th century was to mean “a sum of one hundred thousand pounds,” a mountain of money at the time (“An honest Gentleman who … was worth half a Plumb,” 1710).
By the mid-19th century “plum” had become slang for “a coveted prize,” “the best of a collection of things” or “the best part of a book or musical piece” (“It is only the stupid parts of books which tire one. All that is necessary is to pick out the plums,” 1825). “Plum” also was used to mean specifically “a choice job or appointment,” and, in particular, such posts awarded as political rewards (“The boys enjoying the plums will support anybody who is good for him or them,” 1887). So the use of “plum job” reflects a long history of likening a choice position to the sweet fruit of the plum tree.
Incidentally, the classic plum-centric nursery rhyme “Little Jack Horner” (“Little Jack Horner sat in the corner, Eating a Christmas pie; He put in his thumb and pulled out a plum, And said ‘What a good boy am I!’”) may be more than it seems. It’s said to have originated as a satiric comment on events surrounding the seizure of church property in England in the mid-16th century, after Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church. According to this story, “Jack Horner” was actually Thomas Horner, dispatched by the Abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whyting, to take deeds for several of the Abbot’s properties to King Henry. The deeds were intended as a bribe to protect the rest of Whyting’s properties from seizure by the King, and, being very valuable, were supposedly baked into a pie to conceal them on the long journey. (An actual pie is probably a bit unlikely, but they were probably concealed in some fashion.) Along the way, however, Horner pulled the deed to one of the best properties from the pie (or whatever) and kept it for himself. In the end, the bribe didn’t work, and Henry took all the Abbot’s land and had the Abbot drawn and quartered to boot. But Horner still had the deed he had taken (the “plum” from the “pie”), and the Horner family lived on that property in Somerset, in a house called Mells Manor, for several centuries. For the record, the Horner family always denied this story, maintaining that Henry gave Thomas Horner the property. Perhaps, but it’s still a great story.