Building castles in the air

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The expression building castles in the air is an altered version of a French idiom, though it may be linked to a a metaphor put forth by St. Augustine. We will examine the definition of the phrase building castles in the air, where it probably came from and some examples of its use in sentences.

Building castles in the air means entertaining daydreams that will never come to pass. Building castles in the air usually involves grandiose plans that are nearly impossible for the dreamer to achieve. Such plans are considered flights of fancy, charming and idealized versions of an imaginary life that the dreamer lives. Many practical people believe that building castles in the air is a waste of time, though not everyone feels that way. Henry David Thoreau said: ” If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. ” However, if an idea that one has conceived is brought to fruition, it is no longer a case of building castles in the air. Henry David Thoreau was an essayist and poet, a literary philosopher who famously retreated to life in the woods in order to find inspiration in the natural world. Thoreau built a cabin on Walden Pond and concentrated on his dreams and writings. He was a transcendentalist, believing that God is present in nature and in humanity. Today, one may still visit Walden Woods and the area where Thoreau lived and wrote.

The idea of building castles in the air may go back as far as St. Augustine, who lived 354-430. He created the metaphor subtracto fundamento in aere aedificare, which translates as to build on air with no foundation. The idiom building castles in the air first appeared in the 1500s, as a translation from the French. However, the original, literal translation of the French idiom was building castles in Spain. The first translation of the phrase into English came from a work of French poetry known as Roman de la Rose, translated in the mid-1300s: “Thou shalt make castles than in Spaine, And dreame of joy, all but in vaine …” This poem is a treatise on desire, romantic ideas and romantic love. The idiom building castles in Spain was well known at this time to mean something that is impossible to accomplish. Spain, held by the Moors, was an impenetrable force to the French, and not a place one could conquer and build a castle in. By the 1500s the reference to building castles in Spain was no longer understood, and fresh translations of the Roman de la Rose used the idiom building castles in the air, instead. Related phrases are build castles in the air, builds castles in the air, built castles in the air.


“Though the path to Brexit is paved with good intentions, without significant progress the sector will soon be building castles in the air rather than on solid ground,” Brock added. (Markets Insider)

It said the governor is still deluding Cross Riverians with empty promises, signing MOU’s without practicalising it and still building castles in the air. (The Guardian Nigeria)

The “castles in the air” element means that far too many projects get built and that overall returns are disappointing. (The Economist)

Kingelez, who produced wondrous urban models with found magazines and product packaging, was not simply an artist who created proverbial castles in the air.  (The Art Newspaper)