If you’re resting on your laurels in today’s world, it means you’re satisfied with your past success and consider further effort unnecessary.
The idea of laurel leaves being used to celebrate achievement originated with the leaders and athletic stars of ancient Greece. In Hellenic times, laurel leaves were closely tied to Apollo, the god of music, prophecy and poetry. Apollo was usually depicted with a crown of laurel leaves, and the plant eventually became a symbol of status and achievement.
The reason for the association between Apollo and laurel comes from the myth of Apollo’s love for the nymph Daphne, who turned into a Bay tree just as Apollo approached her. Undeterred, Apollo embraced the tree, cut off a branch to wear as a wreath and declared the plant sacred.
Victorious athletes at the ancient Pythian Games (forerunner of the Olympics) received wreaths made of laurel branches, and the Romans later adopted the practice and presented such wreaths to generals who won important battles. Venerable Greeks and Romans, or “laureates,” were thus able to “rest on their laurels” by basking in the glory of past achievements.
Following the decline of the Greek and Roman empires, the use of laurel as an emblem of victory didn’t appear again until the Middle Ages. Geoffrey Chaucer referred to laurels in that context in The Knight’s Tale, circa 1385. Later the phrase took on a negative connotation, and since the 1800s it has been used for those who are overly satisfied with past triumphs.
We continue to call those who are especially honored laureates although the laurel leaves, also known as bay leaves, are usually kept for kitchen use. Nobel Laureates get a nice medal and 10 million Swedish Krona and Poets Laureate (in the UK at least) get a useful salary and a butt of sack (barrel of sherry).
But these days, the phrase is used with a distinctly disapproving tone. “One-hit wonders” tend to be sneered at.
Which seems to me highly unfair. If you’ve managed to make it over the top once, why do you have to do it again? Sit back, relax, enjoy a glass of sack!