– The phrase a legend in one’s (own) lifetime denotes a person of great fame and achievement, comparable to the heroes of legend.
– Punningly after a legend in one’s (own) lifetime, the phrase a legend in one’s (own) lunchtime (or lunch hour) denotes a person notorious only within a limited social circle or in one’s own estimation, or for a short period of time.
A LEGEND IN ONE’S (OWN) LIFETIME
The Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition, 2016) erroneously states that a legend in one’s (own) lifetime was first used by the English author and critic Giles Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) in Eminent Victorians: Cardinal Manning – Florence Nightingale – Dr. Arnold – General Gordon (New York and London, 1918); the author wrote the following about Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), English nurse and medical reformer:
After much hesitation, she had settled down in a small house in South Street, where she remained for the rest of her life. That life was a very long one; the dying woman reached her ninety-first year. Her ill-health gradually diminished; the crises of extreme danger became less frequent, and at last, altogether ceased; she remained an invalid, but an invalid of a curious character—an invalid who was too weak to walk downstairs and who worked far harder than most Cabinet Ministers. Her illness, whatever it may have been, was certainly not inconvenient. It involved seclusion; and an extraordinary, an unparalleled seclusion was, it might almost have been said, the mainspring of Miss Nightingale’s life. Lying on her sofa in the little upper room in South Street, she combined the intense vitality of a dominating woman of the world with the mysterious and romantic quality of a myth. She was a legend in her lifetime, and she knew it. She tasted the joys of power, like those Eastern Emperors whose autocratic rule was based upon invisibility, with the mingled satisfactions of obscurity and fame.
I have, however, found an earlier instance of the phrase, also applied to Florence Nightingale but ascribed to the English scholar Benjamin Jowett (1817-93), in the Introduction to The Life of Florence Nightingale (London, 1913), by the English journalist and author Edward Tyas Cook (1857-1919):
“It has been your fate,” said Mr. Jowett to her once, “to become a Legend in your lifetime.”
The author of The Real Florence Nightingale, published in The Derbyshire Courier (Chesterfield, Derbyshire) of Tuesday 25th November 1913, quoted Edward Tyas Cook’s book:
It was the fate of Florence Nightingale to become, as Mr. Jowett once told her, “a legend in her lifetime.”
In Behind the Scenes, published in Votes for Women (London) of Friday 26th June 1914, Mary Maud also referred to the biography of Florence Nightingale by Edward Tyas Cook:
The two large volumes of Florence Nightingale’s life have doubtless been a revelation to most people. She lived, as she was told, to experience the strange sensation of being a legend in her own lifetime.
I have found another instance of the phrase predating Giles Lytton Strachey’s book, in The Gazette Times (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) of Sunday 12th August 1917, about Herbert Kitchener (1850-1916), British soldier and statesman:
Kitchener was too prodigious a hero to be characteristically English. He was a legend in his lifetime, a thing almost unknown in English history, for the English like their heroes to be 100 years dead.
A LEGEND IN ONE’S (OWN) LUNCHTIME
In this case too, the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition, 2016) erroneously says that a legend in one’s (own) lunchtime was first used by Christopher Wordsworth in Death at the wicket, the review of Testkill, a cricket murder mystery novel by the English cricketer Ted Dexter (born 1935) and the English sports writer Clifford Makins (1924-90)—review published in The Observer (London) of Sunday 20th June 1976:
Cricket, we have been told often enough, is not so much a game as a Way of Life and there are many books devoted to the theme. Cricket as a Way of Death, the cricket-and-crime nexus, has been less celebrated […].
Now along comes Testkill to repair some of the leeway, as topical as inflation but a great deal more interesting, the exotic fruit of collaboration between a batsman who will rank up there with R. E. Foster and the hard-hitting immortals and a former sports editor of The Observer who was a legend in his own lunchtime.
But I have found earlier instances of the phrase; the earliest is from a theatrical review by John Cunningham, published in The Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire) of Tuesday 24th June 1969:
“The Dynamic Death-Defying Leap of Timothy Satupon the Great,” at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, is a play about the sort of fantasies people imagine that those who work in offices indulge in.
Peter Hawkins, whose first play this is and who is on the staff of Radio Durham, used to be a clerk himself, so maybe this is an attempt to exorcise the demons that lurk in the ledgers of his mind. If this is so then his own rite is very agreeably conducted.
“Timothy Satupon” owes a bit to “Billy Liar” and quite a bit to what went before and what has followed it. Timothy himself is a nice young lad, a legend in his own lunchtime in the sub-Dickensian office of Baron, Bound and Bondage of Fetter Lane (where else), where he eyes up the dollies, but never quite makes it, and is never quite seduced either by the comic gorgon of a boss who wants to keep him indentured and indebted to the family business.
The second-earliest instance of a legend in one’s (own) lunchtime that I have found is from the column Lighter Side of Washington, by Don Mclean, in the Springfield Daily News (Springfield, Missouri) of Wednesday 14th February 1973:
Funny remark about a senator who disappears from his office every day about noon to 3:30 or 4 p.m., usually returning somewhat tipsy:
“He’s a legend in his own lunchtime.”