I Didn’t Gild the Lily

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01 October 2015
· Clarifying one of my most commonly misquoted phrases ·

About painting the lily – I need to be pedantic for a moment. Aside from four centuries’ worth of misquotation (it’s NOT gilding the lily), there exists a widespread misconception, even on Internet reference sites, that this expression is functionally equivalent to ‘bringing ice cubes to Eskimos’, or ‘carrying coals to Newcastle’.

It most certainly is not.

Here are my lines. King John, Act IV, Scene 2:

  • 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.

Clearly my inference is the unnecessary beautification of something which is already beautiful, or otherwise adding an attribute to a thing, of which it already has a sufficiency.

Carrying coals to Newcastle, on the other hand, is adding unnecessarily redundant items or quantities – not attributes.

It’s a subtle difference, but let’s pay attention and get it right, shall we? Subtlety is something I am very good at, and I don’t like to see my meanings butchered by illiterate Willys who can’t even be bothered to read properly.