Famous Sayings: #29 — ‘Fool’s Gold’

September 25, 2016

fool's gold, iron pyrite, Sir Martin Frobisher, Northwest Passage

When you think of the saying “Fool’s Gold,” you might think of the 1949 Gold Rush or any other gold rush in history, as an article from Investopedia points out. I know it’s not that’s just me.

If you’re a scientist, you’re probably thinking of the real name for “Fool’s Gold.” Pyrite is also known as iron pyrite or “fool’s gold.”

Pyrite is used for commercial purposes. In particular, it is a source of sulfur in the production of sulfuric acid. Countries that produce the ore today include Spain, Japan, the United States (in Tennessee, Virginia, and California), Canada, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Russia, and Peru (“Pryite”).

In any case, the term “fool’s gold” has historical and metaphorical significance. But do you know how they term is used the way it is today?


When Did This Famous Saying Originate?

In my search for this meaning, my first stop was the Know Your Phrase website. There, I found a short historical mention of (Sir) Martin Frobisher. However, it turns out that most of the information on that page was pulled from a Wikipedia page on Frobisher.

From there, I went to Wikipedia to learn more and to find other sources. One source was a page written by C.N. Trueman. On that page, Sir Martin Frobisher is referred to as “an eminent mariner during the reign of Elizabeth I.”

Who Was Sir Martin Frobisher?

Martin Frobisher was born around 1539, to Sir Bernard Frobisher. Martin Frobisher was raised and education in the home of Sir John York, a merchant in London and the Master of the Mint. York was Martin Frobisher’s uncle.

Frobisher was drawn to the life of a voyager. He was a crew member of voyages to the African coast in the 1550’s. He fought for Protestants in the Revolt of the Spanish Netherlands when in the employ of Louis, Prince of Condé during the 1560’s and 1570’s.

Frobisher made three voyages in order to find the Northwest Passage. Those voyages were financed by Queen Elizabeth and city financiers.

During the first voyage, which occurred from June to October 1576, he found the waterway now known as Frobisher Strait. He also brought back black rocks he believed contained gold.

During the second voyage, which took place from May to September 1577, he brought back 200 tons of this black rock. Those would be used for road repairs in Kent.

During Third voyage, which lasted from May to October 1578, Frobisher visited Greenland and brought back iron nails.

Various sources also say Frobisher brought back 200 or more tons of the ore from the second voyage. Also, he was said to bring back over 1,300 more tons from the third voyage.

Here is an Excerpt from Made in America by Bill Bryson:

The endearingly hopeless Martin Frobisher explored the Arctic region of Canada, found what he thought was gold, and carried fifteen hundred tons of it home on a dangerously overloaded boat only to be informed that it was worthless iron pyrites. Undaunted, Frobisher retuned to Canada, found another source of gold, carted thirteen  hundred tons of it back, and was informed, with presumed weariness on the part of the royal assayer, that it was the same stuff. After that, we hear no more of Martin Frobisher.

In any event, Frobisher returned to military service in 1579 and 1580. He was one of the naval commanders against the Spanish Armada in 1588, for which he was knighted.

Can We Find the Earliest Known Usage of the Idiom?

By some accounts, the earliest known usage of “fool’s gold” in the metaphorical sense came in 1872.

The page on Know Your Phrase says that one of the early appearances of the phrase “fool’s gold” was used in the title “Fool’s Gold and How we may Know it” in the Indiana Progress newsletter.

There are several minterals [SIC] which are sometimes mistaken for gold, but the two which are most apt to give rise to deception in this matter are pyrites and mica, and hence they are sometimes called fool’s gold.

On Merriam Webster’s page for fool’s gold, it says that the first known use of the phrase was around 1872. However, there is no source given.

At The Phrase Finder, Gary Martin cites a June 1888 headline in The Atlanta Constitution as having the first reference he could find, albeit ironically:

Fools’ Gold
The Search for Captain Kidd’s Buried Wealth…
A party of men digging in a Connecticut cave – ploughing up New Jersey ground in the fruitless search.


So, What Does ‘Fool’s Gold’ Mean Metaphorically?

As Martin points out:

The term has come to denote any apparent treasure trove that turns out to be worthless.

Basically, fool’s gold is anything that appears to be worth far more than it actually is. You can see this in anything and sadly, anyone.

Now, I’m not calling people “worthless” but sometimes, people pretend to be something that they are not. The term “Too good to be true” comes to mind.

Other times, some people appear to be stronger than they are until they are fully tested.

Are there situations you can think of when this applies? I can think of one in particular. Bonus points if you can guess it.


Work’s Cited

Bryson, Bill. Made in America. Perinnial; HarperCollins, 2001. Print. Retrieved 25 August 2016. <https://books.google.com/books?id=G8d_4MxVUjoC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=gold&f=false>.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Pyrite.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Web. Retrieved 25 Aug 2016. <https://www.britannica.com/science/pyrite>.

“Fool’s Gold.” Investopedia. Web. Retrieved 25 Aug 2016. <http://www.investopedia.com/terms/f/foolsgold.asp>.

“Fool’s Gold.” Know Your Phrase. Web. Retrieved 24 Sep 2016. <http://www.knowyourphrase.com/phrase-meanings/Fools-Gold.html>.

“Fool’s Gold.” Merriam-Webster. Web. Retrieved 25 Sep 2016. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fool’s%20gold>.

Martin, Gary. “Fools’ Gold.” The Phrase Finder. ©1996-2016. Web. Retrieved 25 Sept 2016. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/140000.html>.

Trueman, C.N. “Sir Martin Frobisher” The History Learning Site, 17 Mar 2015. Last Updated 16 Aug 2016. Web. Retrieved <http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/tudor-england/sir-martin-frobisher/>.

Various. “Martin Frobisher.” Wikipedia. Web. Retrieved 25 Sept 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Frobisher>.

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