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I've heard this a few times, just wondering what it means?

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General reference. With Google Instant, the full expression is offered as first choice as soon as I type the first word, and the definition/origin are clearly visible without even leaving the Google homepage. –  FumbleFingers Dec 7 '11 at 0:49
    
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Evan -- The FAQ says you are free to ask here if you have consulted the general references and your question isn't adequately answered by these resources. –  Jay Elston Dec 7 '11 at 0:57
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@FumbleFingers: careful, there. While I agree that this is general reference, the reason for that is that one can easily look it up in a dictionary, not because one can find (what looks like) an answer without leaving the Google homepage. The former is designed to answer "what does [x] mean"; the latter is designed to answer "where can I find a webpage about [x]". The former is reasonably reliable; the latter may or may not be. –  Marthaª Dec 7 '11 at 1:52
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@FumbleFingers: I wasn't interpreting my own reasons, I was interpreting what "general reference" means. It emphatically doesn't mean "I can look it up without even leaving Google's homepage". –  Marthaª Dec 7 '11 at 14:35
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closed as general reference by FumbleFingers, Dusty, Jasper Loy, Daniel, Gnawme Dec 7 '11 at 1:14

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

1 Answer

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Taken from Phrases.org.uk

To apply unnecessary ornament - to over embellish.

Origin

From Shakespeare's King John, 1595:

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.

The context of that speech in the play is King John's satisfaction with his second coronation - "Here once again we sit, once again crown'd". His courtiers aren't so sure, calling the crowning 'superfluous'. The use of Shakespeare's text to denote unnecessary ornamentation is fairly straightforward. After all, 'to gild' is to cover with a thin layer of gold, so 'gilding refined gold' is obviously unnecessary. Unfortunately, remembering text from Shakespeare isn't everyone's forte and the quotation has become rather garbled. As the quotation above shows, 'gild the lily' doesn't appear in the original.

The term 'paint the lily' was used in the 20th century, with the same meaning we now apply to 'gild the lily'. Clearly, this is the correct quotation. The two versions coexisted for a time, although 'paint the lily' is now hardly ever used. The first citation I can find for 'gild the lily' comes from the USA, in the Newark Daily Advocate, 1895, in what appears to be 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.

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