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I know that gilded means

covered or highlighted with gold or something of a golden color

So it can be associated both with gold as a chemical element or just the colour.

Some situations might give away which of these interpretations is the correct one (e.g. a gilded car is hardly covered in gold), but what about ambiguous ones (e.g. gilded earrings)?

When you read gilded in a sentence without further specifications, do you think about an item covered in real gold or just painted in such colour?

I'm looking for a "standard" interpretation (if there is one) on the matter, but also personal opinions, if properly supported, are accepted.

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I doubt you'd often see "gilded car" - I certainly can't imagine anyone saying that to describe the colour. You wouldn't normally see "gilded earrings" either. They'd be "gilt earrings" if they had a gold-coloured plating, and if they were actually plated with gold they'd normally be described as gold-plated. –  FumbleFingers Sep 17 '11 at 13:02
    
@FumbleFingers: isn't gilt the same as gilded? I know that you could just describe things with different terms (e.g. gold painted car), but that doesn't answer my question. –  Gurzo Sep 17 '11 at 13:11
    
@FumbleFingers: As I stated in my question, I wasn't sure such interpretation existed or not. I'll be glad if you'd decide to make an answer out of your comments as they seem sensible. –  Gurzo Sep 17 '11 at 15:11

3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Gilt and gilded mean the same, but they're not always used interchangeably. For instance, with earrings, "gilt" is far more common than "gilded". But "gilded cage" is far more common than "gilt cage".

Personally I'd say on balance "gilded" is more dated. "Gilt" is slightly more likely to be used of real gold - or high-value, as opposed to highly-decorative (as in gilt-edged securities).

More often, "gold-plated" is used for the real thing. I can't quantify gold-plated connectors in Google Books because of the hyphen, but quotated as a Google web-search it gets over 8,000,000 hits as opposed to less than 2000 for gilded connectors and less than 200 for gilt connectors.

OP is looking for a distinction in meaning that doesn't in fact exist. It's just that there are many idiomatic usages where one word is used much more than the other.

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Most of time I see the word, it is being used metaphorically ("Gilded Age", "gilding a lily") and the implication is usually that there is some level of fakery or at least shallowness. So for those cases, at least, I would say the interpretation is "painted" or at least "covered in a very thin layer of not quite pure gold, and even then only covered on the surfaces that face outward".

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M-W says:

1: to overlay with or as if with a thin covering of gold

2 a : to give money to
b : to give an attractive but often deceptive appearance to
c archaic : to make bloody
— gild·er noun
— gild the lily : to add unnecessary ornamentation to something beautiful in its own right

I often use the expression A gilded cage about a company with so many perks that it is impossible to find a "better" job.

If you use the word gilded about some metal, I would personally expect it to have a covering of real gold.

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I think given MW specifically say the "smear with blood" meaning is archaic, they should certainly do the same for "to give money to". I'd be surprised if it's been used with that meaning in print more than a couple of times in the past century - the most recent I can find is this one from 1914, which is refering to much earlier times anyway. –  FumbleFingers Sep 18 '11 at 14:33

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