gild the lily

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A common misquotation of a line from William Shakespeare's 1595 play King John, iv.2:

"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."


  • IPA(key): /ˈɡɪld ðə ˈlɪli/
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to gild the lily (third-person singular simple present gilds the lily, present participle gilding the lily, simple past and past participle gilded the lily)

  1. (idiomatic) To embellish or improve something unnecessarily.
  2. To add superfluous attributes to something.


  • 1920, G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem, ch. 4,
    If we are critical of the petty things they do to glorify great things, they would find quite as much to criticise (as in Kensington Gardens) in the great things we do to glorify petty things. And if we wonder at the way in which they seem to gild the lily, they would wonder quite as much at the way we gild the weed.
  • 1996, Tad Williams, City of Golden Shadow, Daw Books, page 172:
    [Describing an execution by lethal injection:] [They] read out their legal mandate to pump you full of sodium pentothal and then potassium chloride until your heart stops beating and your brainbox goes flatline. They used to send a third fatal chemical down the pipe, too, but the accountants decided that was gilding the lily.