Gilding the lily…honestly.


Highly Illogical transparencyGilding the lily.  You know, trowelling it on a little thick, exagerating the upside, talking it up.  The expression is well known but where does it come from?  Well like so many turns of phrase and common expressions in the English language one William Shakespeare is responsible for this appendage to our vocabulary.  Or is he?

I went looking for this commonly used expression in the works of the Bard and came up empty.  What I did find was the following passage from King John Act IV Scene II:

Therefore, to be possess’d with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

In short whoever coined this phrase didn’t pay close attention to the source and missed the point of the passage completely.  Obviously the phrase is a portmanteau of the phrases ‘To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,‘ but the passage does not speak to deceit or exageration but to wasteful excess and over the top extravagance.  Perhaps it would be better suited to describing the behaviour of some of our politicians or corporate high flyers rather than referring to erring on the side of charity when describing something’s attributes or value.  Wait a second that describes the behaviour of our politicians and corporate high flyers too.  Seems I’d better get a broader range of per exemplars to draw upon.

So…if anyone accuses you of gilding the lily stop them in their tracks by saying something like ‘I’ll think you’ll find the correct citation of the passage to which you are attempting to refer is to paint the lily‘ and then you might quote Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride when referring to Vizzini’s use of the word ‘inconceivable‘ to the effect that  ‘I do not think that means what he thinks that it means.‘ and then look out for the uppercut.

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