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I am currently reading "A Study in Scarlet" by Arthur Conan Doyle. On page 33 is a sentence I don't understand:

Well, if a man can stride four and a-half feet without the smallest effort, he can't be quite in the sere and yellow.

What does "in the sere and yellow" mean?


Note: It seems to be related to this part of Macbeth:

I have liv'd long enough: my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

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It means he has not yet entered the autumn of his life, and is yet fit and hale.

In a comment below, MetaEd writes:

‘Sere and yellow are descriptive of an autumn leaf. Thus “in the sere and yellow” is a metaphor for being near the end of one’s life. In the quoted passage, it is used to mean that he has not yet entered the autumn of his life, and is yet fit and hale.’

  • Agreed: the answer only lacks research. – MetaEd Aug 21 '12 at 6:50
  • @ΜετάEd Are you seriously proposing I cite literal dictionary definitions for separate components of an extended metaphor (here, of sere and yellow)? Or are you suggesting a scholarly analysis of the combined allusion from the perspective of literature? Given that dictionary lookups and literary analysis are both off-topic, what else were thinking? Careful now, we know whither that leads. :) – tchrist Aug 22 '12 at 14:03
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    Not at all. I am saying "[w]e expect answers to be supported by facts, references, or specific expertise". Your answer lacks the facts and reasons which support your conclusion. You could write: ‘Sere and yellow are descriptive of an autumn leaf. Thus “in the sere and yellow” is a metaphor for being near the end of one’s life. In the quoted passage, it is used to mean that he has not yet entered the autumn of his life, and is yet fit and hale.’ – MetaEd Aug 22 '12 at 14:10
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As in the Macbeth quote, "in the sere and yellow [leaf]" is a poetic way of saying of advanced years, elderly. I don't know if Shakespeare actually coined it, but he certainly gave it currency.

Sere (also, sear) - dried and withered, carries much the same significance as yellow in this specific metaphoric context. Like autumn leaves, an old person's skin may be yellow and withered.

Here's a typical self-explanatory example - "...he was in the "sear and yellow leaf" of his life."

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    Dried up is the same as yellow? Don't think so. It's just that both happen to the leaf as the year fails. – tchrist Aug 20 '12 at 20:40
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    A mod has deleted my previous comment, but may this one remain on record to indicate that I think the above comment is pointless. I also don't have a high opinion of five people who have thus far seen fit to silently downvote this answer. – FumbleFingers Aug 21 '12 at 11:25
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    Perhaps five people share the opinion of @tchrist and did not feel the need to post "me too" comments. – MetaEd Aug 22 '12 at 12:42
  • @ΜετάEd: Perhaps. I see that comment has just accrued another upvote, so presumably at least 5 people (4 upvotes + tchrist) think sear and yellow in OP's context mean something significantly different. Having just googled a bit further back in time, I'm now convinced Shakespeare's was the original, primarily evoking autumn leaves. For my money, he did also intend the reference to evoke old, withered skin, since the underlying target is old, decrepit people, but that's all Lit. Crit. anyway. – FumbleFingers Aug 22 '12 at 13:08
  • I agree with you that "sere" and "yellow" both contribute to the age metaphor. I agree with @tchrist taking exception with the statement "sere - dried and withered, carries much the same meaning as yellow". As written, you are plainly saying "sere" and "yellow" both mean dried and withered. Since that's not what you mean, I suggest you reword the sentence. – MetaEd Aug 22 '12 at 13:57
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Metaphor for a withered autumn leaf ... here's another one, in the description of the tattered sails of the Ancient Mariner's ship

"The planks look warped! and see those sails,
How thin they are and sere!
I never saw aught like to them,
Unless perchance it were
Brown skeletons of leaves that lag
My forest-brook along"

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I agree that both authors are talking about the tag end of life, but it seems to me that A.C. Doyle is harking back to the lines from Macbeth and Shakespeare is using the noun sere, which according to the O.E.D. meant bolt. George Lyman Kittredge in the glossary to his editing of The Complete Works of Shakespeare gives this entry "sere, a part of a gun-lock between the hammer and the trigger." So it's not just that in old age you are withered and yellowed. There is also little time left. According to the O.E.D. the adjective sere, used by Coleridge, means dry or withered. But Shakespeare was using the noun, not the adjective.

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