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"All that is gold does not glitter" is the first line of a poem from the Lord of the Rings and it's supposed to mean "not all gold glitters" but I'm struggling to see how this can be deduced.

If all that is gold does not glitter then it follows that "gold never glitters". If all gold doesn't glitter then there's no such thing as gold that glitters. This is quite different from the actual meaning. "Some that is gold does not glitter" would make more sense. Am I missing something? Does "all" actually mean "not all" in this context? It's really confusing.

It looks like "Not all that is gold does glitter" would mean the same thing, but in logic it has a different meaning.

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Not all that is gold glitters, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost. –  Daniel Dec 20 '12 at 2:01
See also the related question everything is not.... For these constructions, English and logic do not agree. –  Peter Shor Dec 20 '12 at 2:16
Related: english.stackexchange.com/a/94219/14666 –  Kris Dec 20 '12 at 5:40
As a mathematician I note this often. People say "all A are not B" when they mean "not all A are B". There is nothing to be done about it. –  GEdgar Dec 20 '12 at 16:48
Another similar question: english.stackexchange.com/questions/6251/… –  Hellion Dec 20 '12 at 21:45
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7 Answers

up vote 15 down vote accepted

The original was actually Shakespeare: all that glisters is not gold, but that needn't concern us here.

OP has simply misparsed the sentence - it actually means "Not everything that is gold glitters" (which is to say, "There are some things which are gold that don't glitter").

You can always Google "every x is not y" for more discussion of why this type of construction should be treated with caution. As it happens, I already knew what it means in this particular case (and I knew it was originally glisters), but I think the bottom line is the statement is inherently ambiguous, so you have to go for the interpretation that makes most sense in context.

Tolkien experimented with several variants of the "quirky inversion" of Shakespeare's original before finally settling on the The Riddle of Strider version (that appears twice in The Fellowship of the Ring). But I quite like this somewhat more "pithy" earlier draft...

All that is gold does not glitter;
all that is long does not last;
All that is old does not wither;
not all that is over is past.

(I don't know whether the punctuation/capitalisation there was actually what Tolkien wrote).

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So I should take "Every x is not y" to be equal to "Not every x is y", even if it's incorrect from a strictly logical standpoint? –  RobertRW Dec 20 '12 at 17:42
I don't agree that there's a single strictly logical standpoint - it's an inherently ambiguous construction. It all depends on whether you want to interpret, for example, "every X" as meaning each X, considered separately, or all X's, considered as a single "collection". –  FumbleFingers Dec 20 '12 at 17:51
Alright. So a more "logical" paraphrase would be "Given a set S that contains all that is gold, S does not glitter", because at least some elements of this set do not glitter, for example Strider. –  RobertRW Dec 21 '12 at 23:04
@RobertRW: I wouldn't call that a useful paraphrasing, no. Bear in mind that - as I keep saying - Tolkien's statement is inherently ambiguous. If you want to resolve the ambiguity you need to do that explicitly. So unambiguous paraphrasings include, for example "Some things which are gold do not glitter", and "Not all things which are gold glitter" It's bordering on meaningless to say the set S doesn't have attribute A because a few of its members don't, despite the fact that most do. –  FumbleFingers Dec 21 '12 at 23:55
@Rory Alsop: I'm afraid I felt compelled to reverse your edit. I'm in no doubt that Tolkien's intended meaning was as I originally set it out. Your edit reflects the alternative interpretation people tend to come up with (which is why I said it's ambiguous). Consider the next line (Not all those who wander are lost). By your logic that would mean some who are lost do not wander, which in the overall context seems vanishingly unlikely compared to some who wander are not lost. (I hope I've got that right, but my head hurts now, so I'll just go and lie down for a bit! :). –  FumbleFingers Oct 24 '13 at 14:54
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Shakespeare's line is the best known example of this general phenomenon where a universal quantifier scoping over negation gives a counterintuitive meaning. The expected meaning of:

All that glisters is not gold.

Would be:

For each thing that glisters, it is not gold.

Instead, the meaning to be understood is:

Not everything that glisters is gold.

See Laurence Horn's excellent discussion of this phenomenon in Chapter 4 of his book A Natural History of Negation. (University of Chicago Press, 1989). Other examples Horn draws attention to are (p.226--7):

All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient. (1Cor.6:12)
Every one cannot make music. (Walton)
Tout Ie monde n' est past fait pour l' art. (Rolland)
Thank heaven, all scholars are not like this. (Richardson)
All is not lost. (Milton, Shelley)
Each man kills the thing he loves/Yet each man does not die. (Wilde)

Horn points out, even more interestingly, that while the English can be paraphrased into the intuitive:

Not all that glitters is gold.

In French, however, the "counterintuitive" version:

Tout ce qui reluit n'est pas or.

does not have an "intuitive" grammatical paraphrase. The following is ungrammatical in French:

*Pas tout ce qui reluit est or.

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It means not everything that is gold glitters. Tolkien undoubtedly was borrowing from Shakespeare here, specifically the poem that one of Portia's suitors discovers when he reads the scroll associated with the golden chest that he has (to his loss) chosen:

“All that glisters is not gold—
Often have you heard that told.
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscrolled.
Fare you well. Your suit is cold—
Cold, indeed, and labor lost.”

The meaning is that even if a thing "glisters" (glistens) it is not necessarily true gold — plenty exists that is false. Tolkien offers an inversion of this when he says, in effect, that some things that are pure gold do not glitter.


Some meddlesome individuals reversed the wording in my first sentence so that it meant the exact opposite of what I said (and what is correct). I have changed it back.

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Do you suppose the "gold" here is figurative, meaning "things of value," or is it a literal interpretation? –  KitFox Dec 20 '12 at 2:11
In Tolkien it's figurative. It's a reference to the character Aragon, being more important than he looks. –  RobertRW Dec 20 '12 at 2:12
Of course it's figurative. What, you think metaphor was unknown to Shakespeare? :) –  Robusto Dec 20 '12 at 2:13
I am puzzled as to why you changed your first sentence back. You have it correct in your second paragraph (after the quote) but the opposite in your opening sentence. @jlovegren corrected the mistake for you. –  Rory Alsop Oct 24 '13 at 12:13
@Rory: Because the subject is Tolkien's poetry, not Shakespeare's. Did you read the part where I talk about Tolkien offering an "inversion" of the Shakespeare? –  Robusto Oct 24 '13 at 13:41
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It seems to me that it means "not everything that has the value of gold is so obviously glittery to signal itself as gold."

It isn't pointing to gold as not glittering, but all metaphorically gold things are not as easy to spot as glittery gold.

As stated, this line coopts the line from the scroll that appears in Merchant which shows that not everything that DOES glitter is gold. This says the opposite.

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IMO, The phrase means that not every thing of value has to shine like gold in order to be a thing of uncommon value... There are things of value, like art, that are not made of gold, but are considered quite precious. Another example would be the right tool for the job. The correct sized wrench would not be made of gold, but would be prized above the incorrect sizes. Although it would appear to be just like the other sized wrenchs in the toolbox, it would be valued above the ill fitting tools. It would not glitter, but for for the task at hand, it would be "gold".

In the case of LOTR, Strider, who looked like a common man, was uncommon, and in fact a type of gold that did not glitter until circumstances demanded it.

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An interesting thread. Suggest you read the book, and also Shakespeare's "all that glisters is not gold" (which Tolkien is quite explicitly playing upon). This poem refers to Aragorn, who is not just a normal man - in fact, on first meeting him, he appears to be deeply suspicious, the kind of character one should steer well clear of, and goes by the ambiguous name of Strider - but despite his unpromising appearance he turns out to be (plot-spoiler warning!) the Heir of Isildur and the True King-that-Returns, Dúnadan.

Whilst the construction of the first line may not appear at first glance to be "logical" or even strictly grammatical, both Tolkien's "All that is gold does not glitter" and Shakespeare's "All that glisters is not gold" employ poetic/dramatic licence - in many a poem is the order of words apparently illogical, but the words lure the mind into finding the truth behind the ambiguity. There is a double meaning here:

(i) Things that glister or glitter may turn out not be valuable at all - i.e. "not all that glisters is gold", in other words the glint of bling may turn out to be false or valueless; AND ALSO (ii) Some things of immeasurable worth may not only NOT glister but appear to be dull and unattractive, or even apparently repellent, i.e. "Not all that is gold glisters". This is similar to the adage that "old money whispers, new money shouts" - true value may not be obvious, indeed it may be hidden, unlike the false which may sparkle and be brash but turn out to be cheap.

Tolkien draws on some of the oldest myths and legends in the world - beware the lure of red gold, it may not be as valuable as it appears; and sometimes the field of diamonds lies hidden beneath apparently the most ordinary, or even ugly, of coverings. Enjoy the quest.

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"All that is gold does not glitter". Your logical interpretation is correct: "gold never glitters". The computer scientist in me agrees with this logical analysis, but the lyricist in me thinks the words flow so wonderfully that I can chalk it up to Poetic License.

P.S. On rereading my answer, even I was offended at describing myself as a lyricist in a discussion of such masters as Tolkien and Shakespeare. Please forgive my impudence.

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