Has someone ever remarked to you, “All that glitters is not gold”? If so, did you know what they meant? It’s an important phrase to understand, because it’s most often said as a warning—one the speaker feels you’d be well served to heed. So let’s take a look at the definition, and origin, of this proverbial and idiomatic expression.
What Does All That Glitters Is Not Gold Mean?
Gold has long been associated with and symbolized wealth and success. After all, it has been used throughout the world as currency and for art and ornamentation; Olympians and other competitors strive to win the gold medal. What’s more, it’s a relatively rare element. In other words, it’s an extremely valuable precious metal. That’s important to know when trying to understand the meaning of this idiom and proverb.
Put simply, all that glitters is not gold means that looks can be deceiving. The expression is often said as a warning to someone that things are not always what they seem: that something—and even somebody—can look shiny, beautiful, and very valuable on the outside but actually be worthless and ugly (or at least not as valuable or beautiful as they appear) on the inside.
Fool’s gold is, of course, one obvious example. That’s the nickname for pyrite, a mineral with a bright gold-like luster that’s worth almost nothing. During the California Gold Rush that began in the 1840s, inexperienced miners made “fools” of themselves thinking they struck it rich, seeing how pyrite glistens, only to find out they’d found a cheap gold imitation. But as an idiom, the phrase is used more figuratively. For instance, it might be used as a warning to a person about a relationship or an investment opportunity. Another way to think of this phrase is, to use another well-known saying, that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Here are some example sentences using the proverb all that glitters is not gold:
- I know that the businessman made you a deal you feel like you can’t refuse, and that he says you’ll triple your money in a year if you invest with him, but before you sign the contract just remember: All that glitters is not gold.
- Recently while house hunting, I saw a house that looked so beautiful: It had big, stately columns outside; a brand new kitchen with stainless steel appliances; and I could go on. But I remembered what my mom always told me—that all that glitters is not gold—so I checked out the basement, started looking closer, and asked the real estate agent more questions, only to discover it had a crack in the foundation and termite damage.
- Barry was handsome, dressed well, and drove a nice car. Jenny was smitten with him, but her friends didn’t trust him at all and had even heard some bad rumors, so they warned her that all that glitters is not gold.
The Origin of the Expression
As is the case with many popular proverbs and idioms, variations of all that glitters is not gold existed before the exact phrase we know today entered the lexicon.
Indeed, it’s thought to date back in some form to the ancient Greek Aesop and his fables, possibly to the year 600. In the 12th century, 1175 to be exact, the French monk Alain de Lille wrote: “Do not hold everything gold that shines like gold.” While in the late 1300s, Geoffrey Chaucer also wrote two versions, using Middle English, in his works. For instance, in The House of Fame, he wrote: “Hit is not al gold, that glareth.”
But the expression as we know it today (well, almost as we know it today—more in a minute) can be credited to William Shakespeare, who used it in his play The Merchant of Venice, which he is believed to have written around 1596. It can be found in act 2, scene 7:
O hell! what have we here?
A carrion Death, within whose empty eye
There is a written scroll! I’ll read the writing.
All that glitters 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.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscroll’d:
Fare you well; your suit is cold.
Original editions of the play included the line “all that glisters is not gold,” as the word glisters was commonly used then. Over time, however, it fell out of favor and became an antiquated term and the word glitters more common. The two words mean the same thing. You’ll often see the line as we know and use it today in modern presentations of the play.
In the scene, the beautiful character Portia is testing her suitors. Her father left her a fortune when he died. But before he passed, he set up a test for her suitors so that she wouldn’t fall for someone who just wanted her money. In order to claim her hand in marriage, they had to choose the correct casket out of three options: one made of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. The right one in this case? The lead! Hence the meaning of the expression: Appearances are deceiving, and that just because something appears valuable in some way doesn’t mean that it actually is.
After Shakespeare’s play, other poets continued to use the expression. In 1687, John Dryden, in The Hind and the Panther, wrote: “For you may palm upon us new for old: All, as they say, that glitters, is not gold.”
You’ll also find a version of the saying in “The Riddle of Strider,” a poem by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings.
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
Understanding Idioms and Proverbs
All that glitters is not gold is both an idiom and a proverb. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that typically can’t fully be understood just by looking at the individual words that comprise it. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:
You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.
If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.
Unlike most idioms, you may be able to understand this expression just by looking at the words it contains. At least, you’d be able to understand it on some level: that not everything that is shiny and looks like gold is in fact real gold. But remember, as an idiom it has a figurative meaning and can be applied broadly to people and things, to mean that what appears beautiful and valuable may not be as wonderful and precious as it seems. To use another idiomatic expression: You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Discover many more idioms and proverbs here.
The idiom and proverb all that glitters is not gold means that looks can be deceiving: that not all that appears to be valuable actually is. It can be used to describe people and things that/who seem to be good, genuine, true, or to have worth based on outer appearances but in fact may be bad, fake, or worthless.