“Gild the lily” is one of those phrases that originated in a Shakespeare text but have been slightly changed, so we now use that phrase using a different arrangement of the words
The actual reference from the play, King John, Act 4, Acene 2, is:
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.
“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily…” was misquoted in an allusion to this phrase by the Newark Daily Advocate in 1895, “One may gild the lily and paint the rose” was the misquote and it seems to have caught on: it replaced the original. “Paint the lily” was generally used, even into the twentieth century, but the idiom is now more frequently rendered as “gild the lily” and “painting the lily” is disappearing fast.
The meaning of “gild the lily”
“Gild the lily” has become a firmly established idiom. Although the wording is in a different arrangement from Shakespeare’s the idiom holds true to the spirit of the original wording and means the same.
It is a description of the process of embellishing or adorning something that doesn’t need embellishment because it is already beautiful or perfect.
Synonyms for “gild the lily”
Over-egg the pudding
Hold a candle to the sun
Get carried away
Lay it on thick
“Gild the lily” in literature
The idiom has been used in scores of novels, poems and plays. Here are some examples:
- Mark Twain in The Gilded Age.
- Mark Twain in Conversation as it was by the Social
- Inez Hayes Irwin in The Native Son (“Who ever managed to paint the lily with complimentary words or gild refined gold with fancy phrases?”)
- Robert Hichens The Spell of Egypt (“No one needs to gild gold, or paint the lily.”)
- Charles Kingsley Town and Country Sermons (“When the controversy was settled Miss Alice slipped off to gild the lily.”)
- Thomas Nelson Page Gordon Keith (“It was a street wherein the lily was painted and gold was gilded.”)
- Arnold Bennett The Lion’s Share (“To burlesque such a work as “Norma,” then, is to paint the lily, to gild refined gold, to caricature Lord Morpeth, or to attempt to improve PUNCH.”
- Edward Elmer Smith Skylark Three (“The gilding of the gold and the painting of the lily are symbols of our present sufferings.”)
- John Talbot Smith The Art of Disappearing (“The lily is painted, the fine gold is gilded.”)
- Laura E. Richards Hildegarde’s Harvest (“The lily is painted, the fine gold is gilded”)
“Gild the lily” in pop music
Don’t gild the lily, Lily is a pop song by 1950s rock star Del Shannon. It first appeared on the flip side of his record Hat’s off to Larry:
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 Del Shannon
Gilding the Lily is a 2014 album by Devon Williams
Gild the Lilies The Shaking Sensations, 2013