Revenge is a dish best served cold
The meaning of the phrase 'Revenge is a dish best served cold'
The proverbial phrase 'revenge is a dish best served cold' expresses the notion that vengeance is more satisfying when exacted some time after the harm that instigated it.
The origin of the phrase 'Revenge is a dish best served cold' - the quick version
The proverb "revenge is a dish best served cold" is not especially old but first appeared in English in the translation of Eugène Sue's novel Memoirs of Matilda in 1846.
It has since been used in many works of popular culture, including Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Godfather, and Star Trek II, The Wrath of Kahn. The proverb suggests that revenge is best taken when it is carefully planned and executed, rather than in the heat of the moment.
The origin of the phrase 'Revenge is a dish best served cold' - the full story
This proverbial saying certainly gets about a bit, both in time and space. It sounds as though it ought to be old, from Shakespeare or the like. Vengeance was a frequent theme of Tudor drama and several authors wrote about it. Francis Bacon coined at least three 'revenge' proverbs:
- Revenge is a kind of wild justice.
- A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green.
- Revenge triumphs over death
Nevertheless, the phrase isn't Tudor. A quick online search will yield confidently expressed views that 'revenge is a dish best served cold' is a translation of the line "La vengeance est un plat qui se mange froide" from Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, 1782.
As that text doesn't appear in the novel, or any other work by de Laclos, the story appears to be a piece of impressively industrious folk etymology - not only a made up source, but made up in French [...and I understand from French correspondents that the 'froide' should be 'froid' - not a mistake that de Laclos might have made].
The first example that I can find of the phrase is in the French author Eugène Sue's novel Memoirs of Matilda, which was translated into English by D. G. Osbourne and published in 1846:
And then revenge is very good eaten cold, as the vulgar say.
The italics are from the text, which implies that the phrase was already in use when the novel was written. As always with translations, it is a moot point as to who can claim authorship of the proverb as an English phrase - the translator, who was the first to use the expression in English, or the original author.
Wherever it can be said to have originated, the proverb struck a chord in the English-speaking world. More recently, it has been called into use in three screen classics:
- Kind Hearts and Coronets, 1949: "Revenge is a dish which people of taste prefer to eat cold."
- The Godfather, 1972: Don Corleone nodded. "Revenge is a dish that tastes best when it is cold," he said.
- Star Trek II, The Wrath of Kahn, 1982: Kirk, old friend, do you know the Klingon proverb, "Revenge is a dish best served cold"?
As I said, the proverb gets about - Paris, Ealing, New York and finally, the Klingon Empire.