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I always thought that if something is made of gold, it is a gold thing, if it looks like gold but might not be, it is golden. But looking in the dictionary, I can see I was wrong.

In the Cambridge dictionary, for both gold and golden it reads:

made of gold, or the colour of gold

For "golden" it reads in also:

made of gold

Example sentences for gold:

She always does her presents up beautifully in gold and silver paper.
She was wearing a gold Lurex top with a pink mini skirt.
There are a couple of fish with blue markings, and a few more with gold stripes down the side.

  1. I understand in those examples "gold" refers to the color but why it is not golden?
  2. How would the meaning change if I put "golden" there?
  3. How to tell which one should I use?
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I think the choice of "gold" and not "golden" in those examples has to do with parallelism. Other things are being described by color as well--the gold top and the pink skirt, the blue and gold fish.

Gold is the name of the color, so in a list of colors, gold is the preferred form. The meaning doesn't necessarily change if you say golden instead, it just makes the sentence less parallel.

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As an American English speaker, I use gold and golden interchangeably, except in common phrases, like "silver and gold" (or "gold and silver") are often paired, you could say "golden and silvery" but that sounds odd to me.

If you are using the word "gold" to describe something that is not made of gold, then it's like a metaphor, you are evoking the metal (not just the color) -- the princess with the golden hair vs the princess with hair of gold. (Gold-haired princess would also be correct.)

That said, I hear "gold" more often used to describe gold-colored than "golden" -- the distinction is not very significant.

  • And what about when you talk about jewelry? I would expect gold to be used more if the item in question is truly made of gold. And why then I should not say "gold hair", if gold also refers to the color? – John V Feb 5 at 8:23
  • You could say "the princess with the gold hair" or "golden hair" -- I believe the first is technically a metaphor, but used fairly interchangeably (at least in USA). – Ultrasaurus Feb 5 at 8:30
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    "Golden jewellery" to me means gold-coloured, while "gold jewellery" means it's actually made of gold. But that's pretty much limited to material objects as a distinction. – SamBC Feb 5 at 21:37
  • In advertising, it's legally required that "gold" jewelry contain a minimum percentage (by weight) of the metal gold. – dan04 Feb 8 at 5:59
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@Katy has the answer for your example sentences.

Golden tends to be used metaphorically, and it should be used when the object cannot possibly be made of gold. Examples:

golden goose
golden handshake
golden opportunity
golden age

Otherwise, gold is shorter and more common.

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