Saturday, October 10, 2009


Pudding proof

There’s an advertisement I’ve been hearing on the radio in the mornings: it’s for a local business, and it’s voiced over by the business owner himself, common for local ads. He tells you that his business is a good one, but says that “the proof is in the pudding,” and you should come in and see for yourself.

I’ve heard that phrase quite often, recently, for some reason. Only, it’s the wrong idiom. The proof is not in the pudding.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

The wrong version doesn’t even make any sense, though, of course, few people actually try thinking about the standard phrases they use. That’s why one hears things like, “It’s his stock and trade,” which should be “stock in trade.” It’s why one sees people expressing support for someone’s position by writing, “Here, here!” (It should be “Hear, hear!”, as in “Listen to this guy!”) And it’s why one comes by the most nonsensical one of all, “I could care less,” rather than “I couldn’t care less.”

“Proof”, here, doesn’t refer to the more common meaning today, of “evidence”, but to an older meaning, a test of quality. We seldom use the word in that sense now as a noun (it does survive, at least for a little longer, as a photographic proof sheet (test sheet), and as printer’s proofs), but we still see it as a verb when we proof the yeast for bread-making, and when we proofread text — those of us who don’t rely overmuch on the spelling checker.

The sentence as a whole is one of the many that come to us through the truly marvellous book Don Quixote, but there are earlier references to similar adages, and Cervantes undoubtedly was using an already established saw, which, then, of course, was translated.

I’ve written before about what a great book Don Quixote is. But don’t take my word for it: read it; the proof of the pudding is, after all, in the eating.


Thomas J. Brown said...

I often have to explain that one to people. I find that most people have never heard the original phrase, but have heard the incorrect version their whole lives.

Another one that gets me is when people say, "case and point," which makes absolutely no sense at all. "Case in point," on the other hand...

A'Llyn said...

I read that "the exception proves the rule" is another case of using 'proof' in the old sense of 'test.'

To randomly make up an example:

Rule: You must be at work at 8:30 am.

Exception: Unless you call in sick so we know why you're not here.

See, the fact that there's an exception 'proves' that the rule is...a rule. Yay!?

Hmm...not so clear.


Rule: You must be at work at 8:30 am.

Exception: But I'm sick!

Test: OK, does the fact that people may sometimes be sick negate the rule entirely, or does the rule in general still work?

Now that could make sense.

Camels With Hammers said...

I can't stand that "exception that proves the rule" expression. It's pure nonsense as far as I'm concerned. The exception undermines the rule. It may not obliterate it as "rules" are stronger or weaker in strength and may withstand some exceptions before becoming too weak to be barely a rule.

I don't think it even works as "testing" the rule, but I think that's a big step in a better direction.

Laurie said...

My father has always yelled the correct phrase at the TV whenever he heard "The proof is in the pudding." Neither my brother nor I would never make that mistake.

Another one that doesn't make sense is, "Happy as a clam." Why should clams be particularly happy? However, "Happy as a clam at high tide" makes much more sense.

Barry Leiba said...

Hm. I hadn't thought about "as happy as a clam". I've heard the shortened version of another, "as happy as a pig," but that's because they wanted to avoid the offensive word in the full version. As far as I know, "high tide" shouldn't bother anyone....

Catherine said...

I have never heard or seen "happy as a clam" without the addition of "at high tide."