language corner

Fractured Shakespeare

All that glitters isn't gilding
September 22, 2014

Much time has pas’t since Language Corner has revisited Shakespeare, or what passes for Shakespeare these days. A slight refresher might be in order, meant as a gentle push, not a cattle prod.

The Bard is still subject to prose much mangled, though some has become so common that, s’truth, it has entered into the realm of s’OK. We will go over a few this week and next.

Let’s start with “gild the lily.” The phrase has appeared more than 100 times in the past year, a Nexis search shows, as in a suggestion in a recipe: “To gild the lily, you might want to add a bit of gorgonzola or saga cheese on each salad.”

The tie to Shakespeare is in The Life and Death of King John, as the king has just had his second coronation. A disgusted Earl of Salisbury says that was a crowning too far, that “to be possess’d with double pomp, To guard a title that was rich before, To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,” and several other examples of over-the-top-ness, “Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”

Gilding, or adding a layer of gold, to refined gold is indeed wasteful and ridiculous excess, but so is it silly to “paint a lily,” already beautiful. But “gilding the lily” has come to mean not “wasteful and ridiculous excess,” but merely adding a final touch, like a cherry on top of a sundae. It doesn’t make it bad, just more.

“Gilding the lily” apparently first appeared in the late 19th century in the US, and its use has overcome its lack of accuracy. “Paint the lily” has appeared fewer than a dozen times in the past year, according to a Nexis search.

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If you like clichés, “gilding the lily” is perfectly fine. There’s no use getting all sweaty over its use, because it’s not going away. You can, however, avoid connecting Shakespeare to that phrase. And you can also avoid misspelling “gild,” as a recipe for corn fritters did, saying: “If you really want to guild the lily, top them with a little hot salsa and sour cream.” That would be unionization, not embellishment.

Wherefore art other Shakespearean misquotes? The answer is not “where” they are, but “why” or “for that reason.” In Romeo and Juliet, the young Capulet maiden is lamenting the cruel fate that has befallen her, to fall in love with a Montague lad. “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” she says, and then pleads: “Deny thy father and refuse thy name; Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.” She’s asking him to renounce his family name, or offering to renounce hers. She is asking him, “why are you a Montague?” or saying, “since you are a Montague,” they must be apart. She’s not asking where Romeo is, because he is right there, below her balcony, where he has just delivered one of his most memorable lines, “But soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

Outside of Shakespearean-aspiring references, “wherefore” appears mostly in formal or ceremonial proceedings. “Whereas Plaintiff misquotes Shakespeare with abandon,” a court case might read, “wherefore, the editors respectfully request Plaintiff be required to read The Complete Works of Shakespeare.” In other words, “wherefore” means “therefore” more than it means “where.”

As an idiom, though, “wherefore art” to mean “where are” isn’t going away, either. But some restraint should be exercised. As one article about a cool, sunless summer said, “Even the corn is pausing in its growth, as if to say, ‘Wherefore art thou, oh blessed, fiery orb of my youth?’ ”

Now that’s painting the lily.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.