Gilded pills

Posted by Smokey Stover on September 13, 2005

In Reply to: Gilded pills posted by Victoria S Dennis on September 12, 2005

: : : : Hi, my name is Julia. I am studying English as a second language. Could you possibly explain to me the meaning of this proverb (If the pills were pleasant, they would not be gilded) and illustrate the situations where it can be used. Thank you.

: : :
: : : It's not a proverb I am familiar with, but I think it means something like: if something is truly not going to be unpleasant, it wouldn't be necessary to stress how good it will be.

: : : The reference is to an attempt to make pills look/taste better by disguising them.

: : : An example might be: 'You don't need to keep telling me that the dentist won't hurt. If the pills were pleasant, they would not be gilded.'

: : : I am sure someone else can make a much better job of explaining.

: : : DFG

: : It's hard to imagine why anyone would gild a pill. It would probably not make it easier to swallow. A variety of substances are used to coat pills when it is deemed helpful or necessary, but never gilt, as far as I know. Why and where would a student of ESL encounter such a sentence? Why would anyone else? SS
: Well, it occurs in the Gilbert and Sullivan opera "The Yeomen of the Guard" For he who'd make his fellow creatures wise / Should always gild the philosophic pill". The phrase is equivalent to "sugaring the pill" (i.e. sugar-coating it to make it more palatable to swallow). I have seen two different explanations of this phrase.
: that a "gilded pill" literally meant "a sugared pill"
: that old-time apothecaries literally used to coat certain kinds of pills with gold if they wanted them to get well down the digestive system before they started to work. Gold being an inert substance, a gold-covered pill would pass through the stomach unaffected, and only when it was in the intestine would the gold coating be dissolved and the medicine start to work. (VSD)

I'm grateful for VSD's information and embarrassed that I didn't recognize the phrase from Yeomen of the Guard, a work which has given me much pleasure and in which I have seen Martyn Green perform. I thought of the gold-covered explanation (delayed dissolving), but thought that would make the pill inordinately expensive--like the ones we buy nowadays. I was perhaps misled by the reference to making the pills less unpleasant. Okay, so I'm just embarrassed by my ignorance. SS