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Gild the lily / Exception proves the rule

Bedtime for botanists.

Dear Word Detective:  I am wondering about the correct usage of two phrases.  “Paint the lily” is the correct phrase, but how did “gild the lily” become the more popular use?  And “the exception proves the rule” is how we hear this phrase worded, but there is another wording, perhaps even the truly correct one.  But it’s so obscure I only vaguely remember ever hearing it once.  Do you know what it is? — Scott Clarke.

I sure do, but something just occurred to me.  I think I enjoy answering emails that contain more than one question is because I’m so conditioned by those “buy one, get one free” offers in the supermarkets.  Now that money is especially tight, I’m even more on the lookout for such deals, although my enthusiasm has occasionally led, in retrospect, to some rather odd purchases.  Tonight, for instance, we’re having “twofer” sardines on potato rolls with what I suppose you might call Pop Tart salad.  More groat pudding, anyone?

I’ve actually answered both of these questions in the past, but they’re so frequently asked that a rerun certainly won’t hurt.  “To gild the lily” means “to adorn or embellish something that is already beautiful or perfect; to attempt to improve something that cannot be improved, and thereby to risk spoiling it through excess.”  But “gild the lily” is, as you note, actually a misquotation of the original.  In his play “The Life and Death of King John” (1595), Shakespeare wrote: “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.”

I think we can agree that Shakespeare’s version is clearly superior.  “Gilding” (applying a thin layer of gold) to actual gold would be the epitome of pointless adornment, and to slather paint on a delicate lily would be shockingly vulgar.  Gilding a lily, in contrast, seems only vaguely silly.  So why do we say “gild the lily” today?  It’s impossible to say why or even when the change took place (although the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “gild the lily” dates to 1928).  Most likely someone misremembered Shakespeare’s line and committed it to print, thereafter to be copied by readers unfamiliar with the original.  Unfortunately, it’s far too late to propagate a correction, so we might as well get used to “gild the lily.”

“The exception proves the rule” is one of the most commonly misunderstood aphorisms in popular usage.  The legal doctrine on which it is based (which may be the longer form you’re thinking of) is “The exception proves (confirms) the rule in the cases not excepted,” meaning that a judge or other authority can grant an exception to a rule or law in a special case, while simultaneously affirming the basic validity of the rule itself.  The alternative would be to throw out the rule entirely (in which case the “exception” wouldn’t be an exception).  As I said in my explanation a few years back, it’s analogous to a parent letting a child stay up late on New Year’s Eve. Such bending of the rules on a special occasion doesn’t mean bedtime has been abolished from then on.

8 comments to Gild the lily / Exception proves the rule

  • Mark Priest

    Hello, regarding ‘the exception proves the rule’, your explantion makes a lot of sense. However, I had always thought ‘prove’ in the phrase was in the sense of ‘test’, as in ‘proving ground’, ‘proof copy’ etc. What are your thoughts?
    Mark Priest

  • Bruce Welmers

    When you examine a proposed rule (as in a new theorem in math) one way to find out if it is true is to look for an exception. If you find one the rule is false. This is using an exception to test the rule. That’s the old meaning of the word ‘prove’. Still used in the form of the ‘proof’ of alcohol. The modern translation of the old statement is “The exception disproves the rule.”

  • Kim

    Bruce and Mark, if you substitute “test” for “proves,” it does save the meaning, and bring the phrase’s common usage into line with its 2nd meaning (look up Fowler), but you only need to do that at all because the phrase has been so often completely misused as nonsense (Fowler, #5)

  • Paul

    “The exception which proves the rule” continues to baffle me. I’ve heard so many explanations that I’m convinced no one really knows. I am most satisfied with the explanation that says the proper meaning is that something is such an exception to the history of a certain matter that it actually proves (tests or contests) the validity of the rule itself. Or put a slightly different way: the exception tests the reliability of the rule.

    Although I would value your comment, I don’t think it will change my mind. My understanding of it makes more sense than any other and certainly more sense than the phrase does when it is used today in its purely nonsense application.

  • I am learning your language. So, I am sorry about my far-from-perfection English.
    I always understood this idiom means:
    The existence of an exceptin proves the existence of a rule.

  • Debra Sherman

    As with many truths, opposite interpretations are, apparently, equally valid. Gotta love life!

  • As I believe Angel is noting above, I always thought “The exception that proves the rule” stemmed from the phrase, “There’s an exception to every rule.” Therefore, because we have identified the exceptions, this can be a rule.

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