Gilt - guilt

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Gilt and guilt form one of the sets of homophones listed by the then Poet Laureate Robert Bridges.
(For more, see Bridges homophones). AWE has a category listing our articles on each of these..

Both Gilt and guilt are pronounced with a single vowel sound, like that in 'will' (IPA: /gɪlt/). Do not confuse them - it is easy to mistake them in hearing, and a typing error will not usually be noticed by a spell-checker.

  • Gilt is basically the past, or passive, participle of the verb 'to gild. It means 'covered with gold [for example, gold leaf], or something thought to resemble gold'.
    • In the field of finance and business the noun 'a gilt' means 'a gilt-edged security': that is, a government bond issued primarily to finance debt. The British government printed these on paper whose edges had been gilded. As these bonds were - and are - regarded as very safe, dealers like to think of them as if they were as valuable as gold. So the name stuck.
  • Guilt, a noun, is originally the condition of having done something wrong, sometimes in law, sometimes in religion, and sometimes in ethics. (Sometimes, but not inevitably, two, or all three, coincide.) A criminal case in an English court of law will find the person on trial either Guilty (the adjective) or Not guilty. This meaning, 'the fact of having done wrong', has been extended to 'the feeling of having done wrong'. A soldier, for example, who has broken no law, may nevertheless feel great guilt at having killed someone.

Shakespeare more than once makes a pun on these two words. For example, in the Prologue to act II of Henry V, the Chorus tells the audience that:

"three corrupted men, ...
Have, for the gilt of France, - O guilt indeed!
Confirm'd conspiracy with fearful France" -

- in other words, that they have taken [gold] money in order to commit a crime.

  • There is another noun gilt which may be of use to those interested in agriculture: farmers call a young female pig a gilt. "The precise application of the term varies in different districts" - OED (1899), q.v.