I have noticed that some Maltese-speaking people tend to use the phrase "do not play the saint". It's intended to mean "Do not act all innocent" or "Do not act so 'holier-than-thou'".

Is this phrase in current use in British or American English? I've only seen it used by Maltese-speaking people and I always thought that it was a direct translation from the Maltese phrase.

I do know that the verb "to play" can, and is, used before certain nouns, such as "to play the hero", or "to play the fool", so technically there is nothing wrong with the phrase "to play the saint" - but what I want to know is whether this is actually in use.

The only non-Maltese use of it I could find is the song 'Playing the Saint' by Digital Summer.

  • 1
    What is “play the saint” supposed to mean in Malta?
    – user 66974
    Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 12:17
  • 2
    Do not act all innocent / do not act like such a holier-than-thou @user66974 Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 12:37
  • "Non fare il santo/santarellino" is commonly said and heard in Italy too forum.wordreference.com/threads/… I wonder which is older; the English, the Italian or the Maltese phrase.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 11:02
  • 1
    About research: "não se faça de santo" is common in Brazil, and I get plenty of hits for "no te hagas el santo" in Spanish, so it might be a thing in most latin cultures. Malta has significant cultural influence from Italy, so @Mari-LouA's response probably shows why it's so popular there.
    – kadu
    Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 15:53
  • A superficially related (and much more common) English phrase is to play the martyr. But is has a rather different meaning: to make a show of being self-sacrificing in order to gain sympathy. Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 19:23

4 Answers 4


The Google Ngram for do not play the saint,do not play the hero,do not play the fool shows do not play the saint as a vanishingly small percentage of all written works from 1800 onwards. (In fact, clicking the results leads to no relevant results.)

Reducing the search term to "play the Saint" result in some examples, but none in the meaning you suggest. (They relate either to Leslie Charteris's fictional character "The Saint" or taking the part of an actual saint in a play, etc.)

The OED is helpful. In its entry for the verb "to saint" it defines "to saint" as

5. intransitive. To act or live as a saint; to live a saintly life; to play the saint. In later use chiefly with it.

1571 in J. Cranstoun Satirical Poems Reformation (1891) I. xxviii. 204 Nane I accuse, I come not heir to Sant.

1880 A. I. Ritchie Church St. Baldred 26 He sainted it and sinnered it in turns.

The conclusion seems to be that whereas "to play the saint" would be understood, it is very rarely used.

  • In BrE (not so much in AmE), we often use Don't come the hero / fool / old acid with me rather than play. And I expect act is a common alternative both sides of the pond. But saints are definitely less common than fools or heroes in such contexts. Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 18:57
  • It should be Leslie Charteris, not Lesley Charteris, for the creator of "The Saint", but that edit is too small for me to make.
    – Dragonel
    Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 20:04
  • I tend to agree with you, @Greybeard. The phrase seems to be in use by some speakers, as is evident from the answers to this question, but not to the extent that if you were to look it up online, you'd have it defined for you or listed in multiple dictionaries. Commented Mar 1, 2022 at 13:11

"Play the saint" is definitely used outside Maltese speakers. In fact, its usage in English is most likely unrelated to any Maltese expressions as there are similar, more popular English expressions such as play innocent and play the fool. Saint here has its dictionary definition of "a virtuous person" (marked as informal).

To back this up, I chose Twitter as my corpus to target casual language, and manually waded through profiles to find people who seem to be native speakers of British English (BrE) or American English (AmE). Here are some examples from notable people:

  • I remember as a kid being so mad at Britney. Now, I’m sick watching how Justin got to play the saint and drive the narrative — Ali Vitali (AmE)

  • Everyone - and I mean EVERYONE - at Westminster and in the media knew Brendan Cox was a sex pest but they happily allowed him to play the saint anyway. — Julia Hartley-Brewer (BrE)

Here are some more examples: @foxblade98 (BrE), @Asfand781 (BrE), @abg_dionysus (AmE), @HarlequinGrim (AmE). For good measure I also found an example from Canadian English: @vfxwiz.

In my experience, act is also common, perhaps even more common than play. I found some examples of that (all American English for whatever reason): @K03Y_, @Dooomenicooo, @FinessinGawd, @nickmullensgf.

  • 2
    "Play the saint" and "act the saint" don't mean the same thing. The former means to act as though you are assuming a saintly status (without necessarily being a good person), the latter to act in a saintly manner - ie be virtuous
    – Simon H
    Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 12:00
  • They do mean the same thing, @SimonH. Vide - merriam-webster.com/dictionary/act%2Fplay%20the%20fool Commented Mar 1, 2022 at 8:48

Don’t play the saint seems to be common enough, based on this Google Books search:

”don’t play the saint”

Click Preview or Read under each book to see the phrase highlighted. (If you don’t see it highlighted, search saint by itself within the book to find it.)

I didn’t check the nationalities of the authors, but I’m betting few, if any, of them are Maltese.

Here are some examples:

He doesn’t dare touch it. He glances around him. “Under no circumstances, no, absolutely not.”
“Don’t play the saint with me, Richard. I’ve saved it from what Monsieur Sicourelle gives me . . .”
The One Facing Us by Ronit Matalon (1998)

“ . . . I’m beginning to think you’re nothing but rottenness and corruption.”
“Honest corruption. I don’t play the saint.”
The Deer Park by Norman Mailer (2015)

“No, Miss Stefa, don’t do that to your parents!”
“Don’t play the saint with me. You’re not so holy yourself.”
Love and Exile by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1986)

You can also search Google Books for things like “not play the saint”, “stop playing the saint”, “playing the saint”, etc., though you’ll have to weed through some false positives.

  • This is a good answer. However, I suspect that we should be thinking more in terms of the use of the use of the verbs 'act' or 'play' with the definite article. There are all sorts of characters we can be said to 'act' or 'play' any stock character known to drama. I can accuse people of playing or acting the fool, the aggrieved victim, the hero, or many other character in the play of life.
    – Tuffy
    Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 21:49

Play the saint was used as a translation for the Italian expression fare il sanctificetur:

play the saint

John Florio; Vocabolario italiano & inglese (1688)

(Another translation of the noun sanctificetur is bigot)

Play the saint has been used as a dictionary translation for the Italian fare il santo Ex.1 (1860), Ex.2 (1854)

Don't play the saint in all this. You hate those holy hillbillies as much as I do.

From an episode of the TV show Scandal

"(Don't) play the saint" also occurs in the lyrics of songs, for example:

Bird on the Wire by Kate Yeager

Sinner by Homefront

Play the Saint by Emily Hurd

Bodysnatchers by Dave Rawlings Machine

Free Will by A Global Threat

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