Wednesday, August 9, 2023

RETRO Episode 138: Gild the Lily


What happens when we, as speakers of a language, just decide to misquote a phrase until it takes on a life of its own? You get something like "Gild the Lily". Hear Shauna swoon over Heath Ledger in a Knight's Tale while Dan treks through Oscar Wilde shade, bad technicolor movies, and puppy-sized elephants to tell this week's story on #BunnyTrails.

Originally aired December 29, 2021. 

 Click to read the show notes:

 A quick note: Since this episode aired, google made some changes to the blogger format on which these show notes are posted. This made it difficult to read. We have updated newer show notes to be an easier transition, but some of the older episodes will look a bit odd. -Dan

 Welcome to Bunny Trails everyone. Cold open today as we bring you a retro episode. This one comes to you from December 2021. The behind the scenes of this video features one of my favorite openers we’ve ever done, which is available to Patrons every Friday at So go check it out soon!

For now, sit back and relax as Shauna and I tell you about this completely made up phrase that we collectively decided was a thing even though it definitely wasn’t a thing. Originally airing December 29, 2021, Episode 138: Gild the Lily.

Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 138: Gild the Lily
Record Date: December 12, 2021
Air Date: December 29, 2021


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

This week is ‘gild the lily’. Recently, I was listening to the this-day-in-history podcast The Retrospectors with Olly Mann, Rebecca Messina, and Arion McNicoll, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts. Arion said something was a bit like ‘gilding the lily’, which reminded me of this phrase that I haven’t heard in ages and know almost nothing about.


Let’s look at the Oxford English Dictionary, who says gild the lily means,

to embellish excessively, to add ornament where none is needed.
End Quote

I’ve always thought of gilding the lily as trying to make something that is already pretty even prettier, sometimes with devastating consequences. The image in my head was to take a lily growing in a pot and dipping it in molten gold, thus making the lily gold covered, but also killing the plant.

I also felt that way about Hollywood celebrities who got cosmetic surgery done and ended up looking way worse than they would have if they would have just aged with a less invasive beauty routine.

But the OED seems to indicate I have placed my own interpretation on the end of the phrase. It does mean trying to make something that was pretty, even prettier but the consequences are not necessarily part of the phrase.

Before we jump into the history of the phrase, let’s look at the word gild.

Gild, as a verb, comes to us from Germanic and has similar roots with words from Old Icelandic, Old Swedish, and Old Danish.

From the Oxford English Dictionary…
To cover with a thin layer of gold or an imitation of this; to cover with gold leaf; to decorate an object, room, etc. with gilding.
End Quote

And lily comes from Latin and has passed into nearly every European language, coming to us through Old English.

From the Oxford English Dictionary again…
Any plant (or its flower) of the genus Lilium of bulbous herbs bearing at the top of a tall slender stem large showy flowers of white, reddish, or purplish colour, often marked with dark spots on the inside
End Quote

The OED notes “Lily” is oftentimes figuratively applied to things of exceptional fairness or purity.

Fairness, in this usage, means beauty or attractiveness, a now somewhat archaic and literary usage.

So it makes good, logical sense that covering a lily - something so prized for its beauty and purity that it became a figurative synonym for such - covering a lily in gold is just excessive.

So where does this phrase, to gild the lily, come from? Here’s the fun part. It sort of… didn’t.

What appears to be the original phrase comes to us from Shakespear in his work “King John” in 1595.

I’ll quote from a transcript on Gary Martin’s site:

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.
End Quote

The phrase that seems to have started all of this is paint the lily. And that phrase is sometimes still used today, though rarely. However, paint the lily was the predominant phrase used throughout the 1800s and early 1900s.

Shakespear used the phrase again in Twelfth Night, when the Duke says to Cesario. I’ll read from a reprint in the Scots Magazine from 1 April 1760

Now let the pride of great-ones scorn
This charmer of the plains:
That fun who bids their diamond blaze,
To paint our lily deigns.
End Quote

We find numerous times that Shakespear’s “King John” was quoted in newspapers and such in the 1700s and 1800s.

Like this one from the Leeds Intelligencer out of Yorkshire, England

Or this one from the Globe out of London, England

Eventually we started to see usages that weren’t direct quotes to Shakespeare.

Here’s one out of the Iowa News from the Wisconsin Territory

Or another one from an article called Paint the Lily published in the Lancashire Evening Post out of Lancashire, England

Or this one from Godwin’s weekly, who has the interesting subheader of “A thinking paper for thinking people” This is out of Salt Lake City, Utah.

So how, or at least when, did we go from “gild the gold, paint the lily”, to oftentimes hearing just “gild the lily’?

As you might have guessed, it likely draws from paraphrasing Shakespear. Well intentioned folks have been botching quotes for centuries. And our phrase as we use it today seems to just be a shortened paraphrase.

Here are a few early examples:

From an advert in the Surrey and Middlesex Standard out of London

Here’s another example of paraphrasing from the New York Herald out of New York City. This is a response from the person we would now call the Fire Chief, in response to a City resolution that was passed.

First the resolution, then I’ll read the response.

There was even a movie in 1935 called The Gilded Lily, which was a romantic comedy in which a stenographer meets an English aristocrat posing as a commoner on a subway and she falls in love. Spoiler: He doesn’t. And he’s engaged.

So the origin of gild the lily is a mis-remembering or intentional shortening of a larger Shakespearean phrase. Which I think is actually pretty cool, seeing this phrase take on a life of its own and becoming what we want it to be within the society of a shared language.

Next up we’ll take a look at how gild the lily is used today, but first we want to thank those who make this show possible.

A Quick Thank You

This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon.

And speaking of our patreon, we’d love your support! Tiers start at $3 a month, which get you our polls and community only discussions, early access to the podcast, and the behind the scenes video for each episode so you can watch along as we make the show. At $10 you’ll also get original digital artwork from Shauna once a month featuring exclusive art about an idiom or other turn of phrase. At $15, you’ll also get personal on-air recognition like Pat Rowe and Mary Halsig-Lopez do every episode. Because they are awesome!

We also have higher tiers available. Whatever your budget, you can help create Bunny Trails week after week to help continue this educational artform.

We are bunnytrailspod on Patreon. That’s

Modern Uses

1961 Song
1961 - Don’t Gild the Lily, Lily by Del Shannon

Listen to me, Lil'
And to what I've got to tell ya
I've been through the mill
And I don't want to sell ya
But the game of love
Is hard to understand
So here's some good advice
Never overplay your hand

Don't gild the lily, Lily
Don't let him know he's your only thrill
Even though he knocks ya silly
When he looks at you with his eyes of blue
Don't gild the lily, Lily
Don't overdo on the sweet talk too
If you act a little chilly
He'll be hangin' round warming up to you
End Quote

2009 Album
Gild the Lily is also the name of the 2009 6 song EP by Eliza Rickman
Featuring songs like Lily Love, Black Rose, and the famous Mancini/Mercer tune, Moon River

2009 Book
Another work using the phrase is Gilding the Lily: A captivating saga of love, sisters and tragedy. This is a heartrending tale of two sisters and their quest for a place to belong, from author Rita Bradshaw.

Here is the synopsis…
Lily and Sarah Brown's childhood is an unhappy one. Sarah escapes by marrying Ralph Turner, a Sunderland dock worker, but Lily doesn't trust Ralph - a dark volatile man with a hidden cruel streak. When he tries to seduce Lily on his wedding day, her worst fears are confirmed. Ralph's younger brother John is cut from a different cloth, though, and Lily is increasingly drawn to him. But just when Lily sees a future for them, a terrible incident destroys her happiness. Heartbroken, Lily agrees to accompany the family she works for as a nursemaid to New York. As Lily boards RMS Titanic little does she realise that her decision will change the course of her life for ever...
End Quote

No Date - Book
I found another one called Gild the Lily: The Chimamanda Story, by Emmanuel Edwin.

I’ll include the link to this one, too, through OkadaBooks, Africa's leading digital content provider of local and original books

To the Twitters!

We’ll link to her blog, Cooking with Zee, in the show notes and on the Patreon.

We’ll close out with this last one from December 10th

Wrap up...

We, as humans, have a tendency to remember the meanings of stories more than we remember the exact phrasing used. It’s part of why parables are so effective as storytelling devices.

So the origin of gild the lily is a mis-remembering of a larger Shakespearean phrase
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,

We collectively remembered that gilding gold, or painting a lily, or putting perfume on a violet were all excessive and unnecessary acts. And the words were jumbled over time but the point remains… there is no need to gild a lily. It’s beautiful as it is. But if you want to gild it anyway. Go ahead. You do you. Live your life.


That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website - Of course, the best way to make sure we see your comment is to post it on the Patreon page!


Poll time!

In a recent poll, we asked Patrons a simple question:

Elephant-sized puppies, or puppy-sized elephants?

Maybe owing to the cross-over of Word Nerds and Nerdfighters, this result was a resounding 100% for puppy-sized elephants.

If you want to join our polls, head over to where Patrons at all levels can participate in our weekly silly polls that mean absolutely nothing and aren’t even scientifically valid. But they are fun to talk about!

<Dan, Start Outro Music>

Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember...

Words belong to their users

As the music starts to fade… together…

“And don’t forget to be awesome”

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