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shameless pleading

Gilded paradise

Needs more unicorns.

Dear Word Detective:  I’m reading “Whose Body” by Dorothy Sayers. She refers to Wimsey’s library as a “gilded paradise.” I’ve searched the web and while I find that description (“a gilded paradise”) a lot, no one ever says what it means! Also, “to do someone down.” How did that phrase originate? — Barbara Peterson.

That’s two interesting questions, which is why I’m answering them, even though I noticed you also posted the first one to a message board in the UK and received a perfectly fine answer there. Yes, kids, I am Big Brother (gotta pay the bills, right?), and I see everything. You’re lucky it’s me, actually, because I find most of the weird stuff you people do online incredibly boring. And I hate filling out reports.

Onward. “Whose Body” (1923) was Dorothy Sayers’ first mystery novel, and marked the debut of Lord Peter Whimsey, the “gentleman detective” who would star in Sayers’ numerous subsequent novels and short stories. I actually found the text of “Whose Body” online, which makes it easy to present the paragraph in question:

“Lord Peter’s library was one of the most delightful bachelor rooms in London. Its scheme was black and primrose; its walls were lined with rare editions, and its chairs and Chesterfield sofa suggested the embraces of the houris. In one corner stood a black baby grand, a wood fire leaped on a wide old-fashioned hearth, and the Sèvres vases on the chimneypiece were filled with ruddy and gold chrysanthemums. To the eyes of the young man who was ushered in from the raw November fog it seemed not only rare and unattainable, but friendly and familiar, like a colourful and gilded paradise in a mediæval painting.”

Is it just me, or does that room sound just a bit overdone, a trifle busy? Probably the ruddy chrysanthemums. In any case, Sayers is comparing its ornate opulence to a Medieval painting in the idealized formal style of that period. The adjective “gilded” (drawn from the same Germanic root that gave us “gold”) is most likely to be taken literally; Medieval artists frequently used paint containing gold or applied gold foil to their paintings, giving their work an almost hypnotic elegance. So in likening Whimsey’s library to “gilded paradise,” Sayers is saying that it was both awe-inspiring and a snug refuge from the outside world.

To “do someone down” is a colloquial English phrase meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, “to get the better of” or “to bring to grief” a person (“He saw nothing but a spiteful and malignant world trying, as he phrased it, to ‘do him down’,” 1911). In this sense, “to do down” has been found in print (so far) only as of the early 20th century, but it’s probably much older than that. “To do down” appeared in the more literal sense, now obsolete, of “To put down; to take down; to lower; to subdue; to depose” (OED) in the early 14th century.

The use of “do” in “do down” is just one of a dizzying range of uses of the verb “to do” in English. “Do” is, of course, one of the most basic verbs, and comes ultimately from Indo-European roots carrying the sense of “to put, place, do or make.” “Do” in “do down” is one of a euphemistic subset of uses of the verb to mean actions ranging from “to better or outdo” to “to ruin, finish, hoax, cheat or swindle” to “doom, destroy or kill,” as in “to do in,” “do for” (hence the form “done for”) or simply “do” (“‘You’ve done me,’ he cried, and lay still,” A. Conan Doyle, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1905).

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