Archive for August, 2008

Did you mean…?

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Poor old Peter Preston. In his Observer column of last Sunday (24/8/08), he makes passing reference to the Daily Mail’s coverage of Gary Glitter’s return to the UK, remarking on their juxtaposition of this news with one of the British team’s latest Olympic successes. I quote:

Look at the Daily Mail’s split front page on the morning after Christine Ohuruogu’s 400 metres win, where her ‘Best of British’ was weirdly counterbalanced by ‘Worst of British’ (otherwise the Gary who shows that all that glisters is not gold). Could the Mail simply rejoice?

(I can’t find a link to the Daily Mail piece. Mostly because I can’t bear to look at all the awful right-wing rubbish on their website.)

Anyhow, what strikes you about the Preston snippet? The reference to Glitter seems wilfully obscure. Why not simply refer to “the Gary who shows that all that glitters is not gold”? 

Then I realised: that would naturally be what Preston would have written in the first place. It’s then landed in the hands of some subeditor, who has idiotically recalled a favourite factoid: that the “correct” version of the saying/quotation is that “all that glisters is not gold”, and not the (generally much more popular) “all that glitters is not gold”.

This begs some interesting questions:

  1. What makes a particular version of a saying canonical?
  2. At what point does the subediting community give up on a “correct” version and bow down to popular usage (for example, is anyone still standing up for “new lease on life” rather than “… of life”)?
  3. In any case, is this kind of correctness more important than the reference point that the so-called correction here obscures? 

I’ll have a go at answering the first question. (The answers to the other two are “almost never”, and “apparently so”.)

The usual suspect is the Bard, and there’s no getting away from the fact that his coinage in this case was indeed: “All that glisters is not gold”.

Having said that, I’ve had a couple of problems trying to find a link to the relevant snippet of the Merchant of Venice from a reliable source. Both and have been published with the offensive “glitters” in place of the correct version. Worse yet, my copy of Brewer (14th Edition) has, on p484: “All that glistens is not gold”. Jesus, Brewer – “glistens” isn’t even in the picture.

However, if your really interested in finding a correct version, I am sure that Google will be able to help you. Just don’t take up their helpful suggestion below:


It did take a while for the misquotation to take root: “glisters” gets some support from Thomas Gray in his  ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat’ (1748):

Not all that tempts your wand’ring eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all, that glisters, gold.

Some pretty horrible punctuation there, but as it’s poetry we’ll let it pass…

Despite these literary titans, “glitters” has taken over – not just in the adopted popular version of the quotation, but as the preferred verb. Nothing glisters any more. Sorry.

Even Wikipedia will redirect you:


I don’t suppose Peter Preston will be writing a Giles Coren-style response. But I wish he would. (I love Coren’s note; I think it may be his most important piece.)

Incidentally, in the event that Preston *did* write the word “glisters” himself, I withdraw my sympathy for him, and apologise to all subs.

[Disclosure: I used to work as a subeditor. And I quite enjoyed it]