Tuesday, March 29, 2005

What the heck is a gilded lily?

This morning I was mulling the title for an opinion piece I want to write, and I came up with "Municipal wireless Internet: silver bullet or gilded lily?" But then I got to thinking about whether "gilded lily" was the right term.

So of course I Googled it. And the hit list was full of uses of the phrase -- most of them commercial, as in florists.

I gave up and went to AskJeeves "what is a gilded lily?" Jeeves himself didn't know, but the first Web hit was from http://www.phrases.org.uk/ -- a database of phrase origins with a companion discussion forum.

Turns out the phrase is a misquotation of Shakespeare's "King John":

SALISBURY: 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.

So the lily is painted, not gilded; Shakespeare speaks of how silly it would be to apply gold onto gold. The Bard had such a way with words; too bad centuries later we can't even get the quotes straight.

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