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Pronounced /ˈklɪŋkənt/Help with IPA

Something clinquant appears to glitter with gold or silver but may be a false and showy exhibition.

If your instincts tell you that this word looks French, then your instincts are correct, and if they tell you that it sounds as if it might be related to clink, then they would also be right. It comes from the obsolete French verb clinquer which meant to clink or tinkle, probably taken from Dutch klinken, to clink or ring, which is where we get clink from. It was applied to the ringing noise that gold pieces make when they clink together in one’s purse.

By an obvious enough association, it came to refer to the glittering appearance of polished gold as well as the noise it makes, particularly in the French phrase or clinquant for gold leaf. English borrowed the idea of something glittering, and it was in that sense that Shakespeare used it:

To-day the French,
All clinquant, all in gold, like heathen gods,
Shone down the English.

Henry VIII, by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, 1613.

But — to borrow a proverb from an even earlier age — “all that glisters is not gold”, and the word has since come to be used for any showy glitter, especially something with gold decoration. The French now use it in much the same way, to describe tinsel and the like. You won’t find the word appearing very often — it’s definitely one of those poetic terms used more for effect than utility.

Page created 1 Sep. 2001

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World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 1 September 2001.