A Winged Statue of Nike by Carole Raddato (Flickr)

Every language has its share of idioms and English is certainly no exception. Surprisingly, some of these phrases actually make logical sense when you look into their origins. This is true whether you’re holding down the fort or you’ve hit the mother lode. And yes, it’s even true for when you “rest on your laurels.”

What Does “Rest on Your Laurels” Mean?

To “rest on your laurels” means to be content with your past honors or accomplishments. You lull yourself into a state of complacency, pleased with what you have achieved in the past. You stop trying, because you’re already satisfied with what you’ve done. You make little to no effort to further advance or improve yourself or your abilities, since you think it’s unnecessary.

You’ve been there and done that and that’s good enough for you.

A Triumphant Journey to Athens

To find the origin of this idiom, we must venture all the way back to Ancient Greece. The “laurel” in “rest on your laurels” refers to the leaves of the tree Laurus Nobilis, which is better known by most people simply as Sweet Bay. You may have used bay leaves in your cooking. In Ancient Greece, laurel leaves were used to make laurel wreaths, which played heavily into the mythology and culture of the Greek people.

You’ll see these laurel wreaths imprinted on many Greek coins, for instance. The wreaths were also presented to the winners at the Pythian Games, which were effectively precursors to the Olympic Games of Rome. The Romans borrowed a lot from the Greeks.

In the image above, you can see Nike, the Greek Goddess of Victory, holding a laurel wreath in her hand. As such, these wreaths came to be associated with winning and accomplishment. The symbolism of laurels and the laurel wreath can also be found in the context of the poet laureate.

According to Greek mythology, Apollo fell in love with a nymph named Daphne. It just so happened that Daphne turned into a laurel tree when Apollo chose to approach her. Rather than admitting defeat, Apollo instead embraced the tree. He even made a wreath out of one of the branches. At that time, Apollo decreed that the laurel tree was sacred and thus the association was born.

Beyond a Night at the Apollo

In this way, if you rest on your laurels, it means that you have achieved some victory in the past and you were (metaphorically) awarded a laurel wreath. Rather than seeking further victories and successes, you simply “rest” on your laurels. While you may not be literally sleeping on a bed of laurel leaves, you will have become lazy, tired, complacent and unmotivated.

But that’s not you, right? You want to continue learning, growing and improving… including your language and grammar skills. That’s obviously why you’re reading this post. To victory!

Image credit: Carole Raddato