The Grammarphobia Blog

Soul of discretion

Q: What is the origin of the phrase “soul of discretion”? Google just leads to its being an idiom, and I thought you might know how to dig more deeply.

A: When the word “soul” appeared in Anglo-Saxon times, it referred to the “essential principle or attribute of life,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED has several early Old English examples, including this one from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript written in the 700s, with the Psalms in Latin and Old English:

“Conturbata sunt omnia ossa mea et anima mea turbata est ualde: gedroefed sindun all ban min & sawl min gedroefed is swiðe” (“All my bones are troubled, and my soul is troubled sorely,” Psalm 6:2).

In the late 1500s, the noun “soul” came to mean the personification of some admirable quality or thing.

The first Oxford example is from The First Part of Ieronimo, an anonymous play published in 1605 but probably written in the 1580s: “Prince Balthezer. … The very soule of true nobility.”

(The play, about a Spanish knight marshal, may have inspired, or been inspired by, the English playwright Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, believed written sometime in the 1580s.)

And here’s an example from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, possibly written sometime before 1610, perhaps with the playwright Thomas Middleton: “O he’s the very soule of Bounty.”

The OED also has an example of “soul” used in the exact sense you’re asking about, as the personification of discretion. It’s from You May Now Kill the Bride, a 2006 mystery by the American novelist Deborah Donnelly: “I haven’t always been the soul of discretion myself.”

However, the usage has been around for much longer. We found this example in Phyllis of Philistia, an 1895 romantic novel by the Irish writer Frank Frankfort Moore: “ ‘You are the soul of discretion, my beloved,’ said the husband.”

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