Proof of pudding or other

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed Jul 18 21:19:50 UTC 2007

At 4:49 PM -0400 7/18/07, sagehen wrote:
>If  "proof" is thought of as a process, a test, and not just as the
>completed demonstration,  through testing, of the truth of something,
>odd-seeming  expressions like "the proof of the pudding is in the eating"

Why is that one odd?  It strikes me as entirely sensible. The only
version I find opaque is "the proof is in the pudding".  But I agree
that "proof" here is close to "test" (see below).

>or "the exception that proves the rule" become sensible.  "The test of the
>pudding is in the eating "........   "the exception that tests the rule."
We've discussed the exception that proves the rule here in the past.
My understanding (now ratified by Cecil Adams at Straight Dope and
Michael Quinion at is that "prove" here did *not*
originally mean 'test' but 'prove', as in 'prove the existence of'.
Here's Michael's explanation (World Wide Words -- 07 Sep 02), on
which I cannot improve (and which touches on pudding along the way):

It has often been suggested in reference works that "prove" here is
really being used in the sense of "test" (as it does in terms like
"proving ground" or "the proof of the pudding is in the eating", or
in the printer's proof, which is a test page run off to see that
all is correct with the typesetting). It is said that the real idea
behind the saying is that the presence of what looks like an
exception tests whether a rule is really valid or not. If you
cannot reconcile the supposed exception with the rule, there must
indeed be something wrong with the rule. The expression is indeed
used in this sense, but that's not where it comes from or what it
strictly means.

The problem with that attempted explanation is that those putting
it forward have picked on the wrong word to challenge. It's not a
false sense of "proof" that causes the problem, but "exception". We
think of it as meaning some case that doesn't follow the rule,
whereas the original sense was of someone or something that is
being granted permission not to follow a rule that otherwise
applies. The true origin of the phrase lies in a medieval Latin
legal principle: "exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis",
which may be translated as "the exception confirms the rule in the
cases not excepted".

Let us say that you drive down a street somewhere and find a notice
which says "Parking prohibited on Sundays". You may reasonably
infer from this that parking is allowed on the other six days of
the week. A sign on a museum door which says "Entry free today"
leads logically to the implication that entry is not free on other
days (unless it's a marketing ploy like the never-ending sales that
some stores have, but let's not get sidetracked). H W Fowler gave
an example from his wartime experience: "Special leave is given for
men to be out of barracks tonight until 11pm", which implies a rule
that in other cases men must be in barracks before that time. So,
in its strict sense, the principle is arguing that the existence of
an allowed exception to a rule reaffirms the existence of the rule.

The American Dialect Society -

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