Famous Sayings: #27 — ‘Revenge Is A Dish…’

September 11, 2016

Revenge is a dish best served cold.

revenge, September 11, famous sayings

Every now and then, I will hear this phrase.

A variation of the phrase has been used in movies. For example, “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949) as using a version of the phrase:

Revenge is a dish which people of taste prefer to eat cold.

There was a variation in “The Godfather.” The 1969 film had Don Corleone said, “Revenge is a dish that tastes best when it is cold.”

The film “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” is cited here, as well. In “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” Khan said: “Kirk, old friend, do you know the Klingon proverb, ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold’?”

You can find the quote with more context on the Internet Movie Database’s (IMDb) page of quotes from the film. Here is how Khan mentioned the famous saying:

Joachim: They’re still running with shields down.

Khan: Of course! We are one big, happy fleet! Ah, Kirk, my old friend, do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish that is best served cold?


Khan: It is very cold in space!

Anyway, this phrase is ubiquitous, but let’s look into the origin.

Now, Where Did This Phrase Originate?

It’s unclear, but my journey of course started with a simple Google search. This time, my first stop was the Phrase Finder.

Down the Rabbit Hole I Go …

Gary Martin notes that Tudor dramas used revenge as a common theme. However, the phrase is not from the time of the Tudor monarchies.

(By the way, the Tudor family ruled England from 1485-1603. Also, I never really saw “Tudor” used as an adjective before …)

Many people (around the Web) have cited Pierre Choderlos de Laclos as the source of the phrase, via his 1782 novel, Les Liasons Dangereuses. The same people say the phrase was translated from the French, “La vengeance est un plat qui se mange froide.” However, there is no such line in the novel or any of de Laclos’s work. Also, the spelling of “froide” is incorrect. It should be “froid.”

Martin found the first English use of “Revenge is a dish best served [or eaten] cold” in the translation of a work from another French author. Eugene Sue’s Memoirs of Matilda was translated into English by D. G. Osborne. That translated edition was first published in 1846.

And then revenge is very good eaten cold, as the vulgar say.

Martin notes that the text itself was italicized, meaning that the saying had been around before the book was written. Also, from there, it is unclear whether the original author or translator inserted the phrase in the work.

There Were Some Sources with Supporting Information

For starters, I found on entry on the WordSense.eu Online Dictionary. The entry based on the phrase “revenge is a dish …” cites Pierre Ambroise Francois Choderlos de Laclos (1741‒1803) as being incorrectly credited.

Also, the entry mentions the 1782 book Les Liaisons Dangereuses. However, the sentence “La Vengeance est un plat qui se mange froid” was not shown with the misspelling.

I was not satisfied with what I found.

So, I Decided to Delve a Little Further

I wanted to find the original French title for Sue’s work. This led me to the Antiguabook website. According to information I found there: The first addition French title of the book was entitled, “Mathilde. Mémoires d’une jeune femme.” It was first published in parts in Brussels, Belgium, in 1841, which is 5 years before the English translation.

I Delved Even Deeper after Taking a Look at Wikipedia

While I would rather avoid Wikis, the page on revenge cited the Pashtuns of Afghanistan. From there, I consulted a few sources.

Sharnoff’s Global News had an article talking about the Pashtunwali. The Pashtunwali is the unwritten code of conduct for the Pashtun people. One principle that stands out is Badal (revenge). According to Yasmin Eliaz, it’s a “principle of honor, to revenge.”

I read a little more on Badal. On The Nation, Yasmeen Aftab Ali states that Pastunwali dates back to the pre-Islamic era. Pastunwali is the code of conduct followed by Pashtuns, regardless of their whereabouts.

Ali says more on the Badal front:

Simply put, “Badal” means “to seek justice or take revenge against the wrongdoer.” There is no time limit to when the injustice can be avenged.

If badal is not exercised, the offended man or his family will be considered stripped of honour.

The exercise of this principle can lead to generations of bloodshed, feuds, hundreds of lives lost for one insult. It requires a violent reaction to the insult or death or injury inflicted.

A badal usually ends with a badal. An action elicits or demands an equivalent response – and the cycle goes on.

This is important since the Wikipedia article linked to a 2010 book written by James Ferguson entitled Taliban: The Unknown Enemy. On page 32, this footnote can be found:

* The English proverb, ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold,’ is a direct translation of a Pashto one that was imported into British phraseology in the nineteenth century.

If that is true, “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” has a Pashtun origin!

And What Does the Phrase Mean?

This is what I found on the Google Search Page:

revenge is a dish best served (or eaten) cold

phrase of revenge



vengeance is often more satisfying if it is not exacted immediately.

From Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries:

Meaning: Vengeance is more satisfying when exacted in cold blood.

From the Oxford Dictionary website comes this definition:

“revenge is a dish best served (or eaten) cold

proverb Vengeance is often more satisfying if it is not exacted immediately.”

The WordSense.eu website has this definition:


revenge is a dish best served cold

  1. An expression that emotional detachment is ideal when taking revenge, as one is righting the wrongs that have been done to the doer.


revenge is a dish best served cold – emotional detachment is ideal when taking revenge

The passage includes a few translations in other languages, but it’s the Chinese proverb that gets close to the meaning displayed:

Mandarin: (when a nobleman takes revenge, ten years is not too late) 君子報仇,十年不晚‎, 君子报仇,十年不晚‎ (jūnzǐ bàochóu, shí nián bù wǎn)

From Wikipedia:

The popular expression “revenge is a dish best served cold” suggests that revenge is more satisfying if enacted when unexpected or long feared, inverting traditional civilized revulsion toward “cold-blooded” violence.[10]

To be honest, I would guess that the person being “served” was the person one was getting revenge on. Since revenge can often be a “cold-blooded” act … But these definitions actually cleared it up for me.

Why Did I Choose ‘Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Cold’?

I decided to go with this famous saying because it somehow fits the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Fifteen years ago, two airliners were crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City. Another plane was flowed into the Pentagon but passengers upon a fourth plan gave their lives to take down the hijackers on a fourth plane.

Immediately after the tragedy there was an outpouring of support among the international community. There was solidarity. But there was also an urge to get revenge on the planners of the attack.

Now, if you look around, you can find a commentary piece written on September 12, 2001. The title of the piece written by R. James Woolsey and Mansoor Ijaz for The New York Times was titled, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” In it, they mentioned the need for justice, but the need to be careful and cautious.

There were some ironies in the post, since Iraq was being pointed to in the commentary. We all know how attack Iraq turned out and we are not done with the war there.

However, it is important that we be careful when it comes to revenge. Not only might we target the wrong people, but we might set ourselves up for a long-term, all-consuming commitment to vengeance.

Works Cited

Ali, Yasmeen Aftab. “Understanding Pashtunwali.” The Nation. 6 Aug 2013. Web. Retrieved 11 Sep 2016. <http://nation.com.pk/columns/06-Aug-2013/understanding-pashtunwali>.

“Definition of revenge is a dish best served or eaten cold in English.” Oxford Dictionaries.” Web. Retrieved 11 Sep 2016. <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/revenge-is-a-dish-best-served-or-eaten-cold>.

Eliaz, Yasmin. “What Everybody Should Know About the Pashtunwali and Torah.” Sharmoff’s  Global Views. 8 Jan 2014. Web. Retrieved 11 Sep 2016. <http://www.sharnoffsglobalviews.com/pashtunwali-torah-269/>.

Ferguson, James. Taliban: The Unknown Enemy. Da Capo Press; Perseus Books Group. 2010. Print. Page 32.

Ijaz, Mansoor and Woolsey, James R. “Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Cold.” The Las Angeles Times. 12 Sept 2001. Web. <http://articles.latimes.com/2001/sep/12/local/me-44892>.

Martin, Gary. “The meaning and origin of the expression: Revenge is a dish best served cold.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 11 Sep 2016. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/revenge-is-a-dish-best-served-cold.html>

“Matilda: Or the Memoires of a Young Woman.” Antiguabook. Web. Retrieved 11 Sep 2016. <http://www.antiqbook.co.uk/boox/cleved/5332.shtml>.

“Revenge.” Wikipedia. Web. Retrieved 11 Sep 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revenge>.

“revenge is a dish best served cold.” WordSense.eu Online Dictionary. Web. Retrieved 11 Sep 2016. <http://www.wordsense.eu/revenge_is_a_dish_best_served_cold/>.

“Taliban: The Unknown Enemy – James Ferguson.”  Google Books. Web. Retrieved 11 Sep 2016. <http://books.google.com/books?id=OlSfhUw9TzEC&pg=PA32>.

“Tudor adjective.” Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries.  Web. Retrieved 11 Sep 2016. <http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/english/tudor>.

Various Contributors. “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) | Quotes.” Internet Moview Database (IMDb). Web. Retrieved 11 Sep 2016. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084726/quotes>.


3 thoughts on “Famous Sayings: #27 — ‘Revenge Is A Dish…’

  1. Star Trek teaches us well about the human motive for revenge but life is not a TV show. Please read my blog about a famous poem this week. We seem to be tag teaming this week on the topic of revenge,


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