Word Play – All that glisters


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, September 18th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Here’s George Grant now on  nuance in the meaning of words.

GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: “All that glitters is not gold” is a familiar aphorism meaning that what you see, or what you think you see, may not be quite what you get. Not everything is as good as it might appear to be at first glance. In fact, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Early expressions of the idea make their appearance in the English language by the 12th century and may have been drawn from Aesop’s Fables. Geoffrey Chaucer, Alexander Pope, and John Dryden all variously adapted the phrase to their purposes—as did such divergent voices as J.R.R. Tolkien and Led Zeppelin: “There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold and she’s buying a stairway to Heaven.”

But of course, it was William Shakespeare who gave us the most familiar version of the saying in his 1596 play, The Merchant of Venice. Though most modern editions of the play render the line, “All that glitters is not gold,” Shakespeare actually wrote it as “All that glisters is not gold; Often have you heard that told: Many a man his life hath sold; But my outside to behold: Gilded tombs do worms enfold.”

The “glitters” version long ago superseded the original “glisters” and is now almost universally used. Glitter and glister can be synonyms, but they are not entirely interchangeable—each conveys individual nuances and intonations.

The words are also etymologically distinct. Glitters passed into English from the Old Norse, glitra, and the Saxon, glit, meaning sparkling, shining, twinkling, and glinting. Glisters on the other hand comes from the Low German, glisteren, and Middle Dutch glistereen, meaning gleaming, glistening, scintillating, and shimmering.

Sand glitters, but dew glisters.

This distinction is evident in the King James Bible where glistering is used to describe the lustrous glory of Solomon’s temple in 1 Chronicles 29 and the transcendent luminescence of Christ at the transfiguration in Luke 9.  Glittering hardly suits the gravitas in either of these evocative scenes.  But glistering is altogether apt.

Word choices matter.  Often even the tiniest distinctions in our word choices matter.  The fact is, all that glitters does not glister.

I’m George Grant.


(Photo/iStock)

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2 comments on Word Play – All that glisters

  1. Bob McKee says:

    I love the English language and attempt to use words correctly and well. I utilize a dictionary frequently, when I’m reading (I especially love old writings) and when I’m writing.
    For the most part I’m wrong cards or notes of encouragement. Occasionally it’s a support letter (as a missionary) or an expression or exhortation toward a position expressed or a leader who I perceive to have misrepresented or misinterpreted something.
    The point is, I’m in total agreement with you, “word choices matter”! Oh that our children and our adults would understand this and take advantage of the richness of our language!

  2. Scott Lee says:

    Great job, George. I enjoyed hearing you on The World and Everything In It and had the pleasure of seeing your message in print just now. The Merchant of Venice is my favorite Shakespeare play and the reference to the word “glisters” really got my attention when I listened to the podcast. It was a revelation to me that “glisters” and “glistens” have different origins and meanings. I’m always ready to learn something new, even at the ripe age of 73. Keep up the good work and lettuce hear from you again soon.

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