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Origins of Phrases and Idioms; "Gild the Lily"

Updated on January 18, 2017

This is the second in a series of hubs dedicated to research of common phrases, the origins and meanings of them, and places you might find them in everyday life. I find it so interesting where things come from, especially things we might say and not know the real meanings of. If you would like to read the first hub of the series titled "Origins of Phrases; "A Fool's Paradise", click here.


"Gild the Lily"; To apply unnecessary ornament - to over embellish. Gild meaning: 'to gild' is to cover with a thin layer of gold, so if you are gilding the lily you are unnecessarily adding to something that doesn't need it.

Idiom meaning:

to gild the lily

1. To adorn unnecessarily something already beautiful.

2. To make superfluous additions to what is already complete.


From Shakespeare's King John, 1595:

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.

It's not always easy to recall or quote Shakespeare from memory so over time the direct quote has become a bit warped . As you see the the above quote directly from Shakespear, 'gild the lily' doesn't appear in the original; "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily" is the reference used.

"Paint the lily' was actually used in the early 1900s (20th century), to carry the same meaning. The two versions;, "Gild the lily" and "Paint the lily" were both used for a time, although 'paint the lily' is almost never said now. The first citation for the actual 'gild the lily' came from the U.S. of A, from 1895 in the Newark Daily Advocate in what looks like a half-remembered version of Shakespeare:

"One may gild the lily and paint the rose, but to convey by words only an adequate idea of the hats and bonnets now exhibited absolutely passes human ability."

See other phrases and sayings from Shakespeare.

"Gild the Lily" Videos

Eliza Rickman's Music; Gild the Lily

Gild the Lily [EP]

Listen to song; Black Rose from the album Gild the Lily 02:08/02:56

  • Gild the Lily [EP]

    6-song EP includes favorites "Black Rose" and "Cinnamon Bone", as well as a charming rendition of the beloved Mancini/Mercer tune, "Moon River."$6 USD
  • see another Eliza Rickman VIDEO below

Books; "Gild the Lily"

Advice for Writers: Don't Gild the Lily

A lily is beautiful. Gold leaf is gorgeous. But a gilded lily is too much. That’s why writers have used the phrase “gilding the lily” to describe language that is so ornate that it becomes gooey and insipid. In fiction or nonfiction, this type of language is sometimes called “purple prose.”

Here’s an example:
Her hair that lay along her back
Was yellow like ripe corn.

Yellow alone would've sufficed.

“We two,” she said, “will seek the groves
Where the lady Mary is,
With her five handmaidens, whose names
Are five sweet symphonies,
Cecily, Gertrude, Magdalen,
Margaret and Rosalys.”
These samples are taken from “The Blessed Damozel” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882). "The Blessed Damozel" is a poem he illustrated with a beautiful painting later in his life. (See photo below)

I admit it’s a little unfair to pick on this poem, since it was an amazing achievement for an eighteen-year-old, and it has some gorgeous passages. Still, Rosetti’s Pre-Raphaelite verse is a good illustration of writers going too far.
When Rosetti describes the Blessed Damozel’s hair as “yellow like ripe corn,” he could have used just one of the two descriptors and been just as vivid: yellow, or like ripe corn. The two together just schmear gold paint all over the flower. I realize this poem is written in metered, iambic verse, and it has to scan, but still…
And the second selection, where Rosetti invents the names of the Virgin Mary’s five handmaidens: Rosalys? Come on, Dante, give us a break. And lose the “sweet” in “sweet symphonies,” puh-leeze! Even the word “Damozel”—so precious!
I love Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s Pre-Raphaelite paintings, but his language as a writer can be over-the-top.

Here’s an excerpt from Danielle Steele’s novel Toxic Bachelors:
“The sun was brilliant and hot, shining down on the deck of the motor yacht Blue Moon. She was 240 feet, eighty meters, of sleek, exquisite powerboat, remarkably designed.”
OK, Danielle, I wish I had one iota of your income from writing, but does the sun have to be “brilliant,” “hot,” and “shining”? I think we know already the sun is shining “down” on the boat, not up from underwater. And the powerboat is “sleek,” “exquisite,” and “remarkably designed”? Talk about repetition! That is deep purple prose.
What’s the harm in gilding the lily and in using purple prose? It slows down the reader. It paints the details so thickly that the image loses sharpness. It’s a matter of taste where to draw the line, but draw it we must. -Excerpt from | Source


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    • billyaustindillon profile image

      billyaustindillon 7 years ago

      Another awesome hub - I haven't heard this phrase for a while but it is so apt in today's world of false platitudes and over exaggeration.