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My teacher asked me to write an essay on this topic, but I have no clear understanding of this phrase. Can someone explain in more simple words?

"If gold rust what shall the iron do."

The Canterbury Tales (General Prologue), Geoffrey Chaucer

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  • "If gold rusts", according to subject-verb agreement rules. "Gold" is not plural, so we add -s. – CowperKettle Nov 25 '13 at 7:54
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    It’s a quotation from the General Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It’s ‘rust’ and not ‘rusts’ because it’s a subjunctive form used in a way that is not found in normal contemporary English. – Barrie England Nov 25 '13 at 8:17
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It means that if even the best things deteriorate, we can expect no better from the worst. It’s a quotation from the General Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

Out of the gosple he tho wordes caughte,
And this figure he added eek therto,
That if gold ruste, what shal iren do?
For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste,
No wonder is a lewed man to ruste

(He took these words from the gospel, and added this saying, that if gold rusts, what will iron do? If a priest whom we trust behaves badly, it should come as no surprise if ordinary men fall short as well.)

It’s ‘rust’ and not ‘rusts’ because it’s a subjunctive form used in a way that is not found in normal contemporary English.

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  • It would repay the OP if they were to read the whole thing. It is the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in which Chaucer describes each of the characters in turn. This quotation is part of the description of the Parson, a saintly, uncorrupted man. Many modern translations are available, a good one in my view being that of Neville Coghill. I remember the misery of battling through the original of the Prologue at school, but after discovering Coghill the whole thing came to life and I began to enjoy Chaucer. – WS2 Nov 25 '13 at 8:44
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The way I understand it (I'm not a chemist, but google says gold cannot rust), this can be translated to:

If the exceptional (gold) becomes bad, worthless (rust), what will happen to the normal, average (iron)?

Here's an article with this title.

After a brief read, it's about the police stealing, thus the title being translated to:

If the police (gold) steal (do bad things = rust), what will people (iron) do?

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  • Though the old music-hall classic "If you Want to Know the Time ask a Policeman" suggests that police are particularly likely to steal (this being a time when most people couldn't afford a pocket watch on a police constable's salary). – Jon Hanna Nov 25 '13 at 10:53
  • Is that what it meant? I always assume that in those days police were issued a "watch and chain" as official equipment. – David Pugh Apr 28 '15 at 15:30
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The grammar of the phrase is very, very dated, and follows “rules” which many would contend are not rules at all.

If gold rust...

This is what may conveniently be called the subjunctive mood, which is indicated by using an unusual verb-form, either infinitive as here, or a past-tense form “If gold were to rust...” It indicates a hypothetical situation.

... what shall the iron do?

When I was at school, the English master used to delight in the difference between will and shall: one is a future indicative he said; the other is emphatic. The first person used shall as an ordinary future tense marker and will as emphatic; second and third persons were the other way round. Following that “rule,” shall is emphatic here.

If we are to take these “rules” as applying here, which may be reasonable because of its dated construction, a modern English translation might be

If gold were to rust, what must iron do?
If gold rusts, what must iron have become?

Gold doesn't tarnish [rust], so for that to have happened any iron must be in a terrible state — if it still exists at all.

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  • The rule of will emphatic in first person, and shall emphatic in second and third, developed after Shakespeare, so definitely after Chaucer. Shakespeare used different rules. From looking at his works, it looks to me like Shakespeare used will to indicate volition on the part of the subject and shall for lack of volition (I don't know how he chose between shall and will for inanimate objects, which inherently lack volition). If these were Chaucer's rules as well, this means the iron is not rusting voluntarily. This makes more sense to me here than the emphatic shall does. – Peter Shor Oct 10 '14 at 17:10
  • I thought it was will is volitional in first person, otherwise predictive, while shall is imperative in second and third, predictive in first. For my mnemonic is the story of the foreigner who fell in the Thames and cried, "I will drown, no one shall save me!" So they let him. – David Pugh Apr 28 '15 at 14:50
  • @David: I believe you are correct about the grammar of shall and will in the 18th and 19th century. But Shakespeare and Chaucer used different grammar. Observe the change between 1600 and 1700 in Ngrams. – Peter Shor Apr 28 '15 at 16:53
  • @Peter Shor: I am mostly innocent of Chaucer. If my mnemonic is 19th century, I shan't be the least surprised. That's where my schoolmasters lived, I think. – David Pugh Apr 28 '15 at 17:16
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I believe this quote to be saying that if the best of the best is imperfect, what is there to be afraid of with everything else?

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  • Yes, that is what it means, but the purpose of answers here is to demonstrate our positions (as in, can you find references, authorities, works, analyses, etc, to support this interpretation?). – Dan Bron Mar 20 '16 at 18:53
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    You're essentially repeating bits of the first two answers. Please strive to make answers contribute substantive new aspects not found in any existing answers, including some explanation and context — explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. – Scott Mar 20 '16 at 19:44

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