proving the rule (was "wuss")

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed Feb 2 19:11:52 UTC 2000

At 12:43 PM -0500 2/2/00, Fred Shapiro wrote:
>On Wed, 2 Feb 2000, Dennis R. Preston wrote:
>> language as well. I think Gerald would agree that the writing first items
>> he cites are simply exceptions which prove (but do not tarnish) the rule.
>> dInIs (who threw in the old-timey use of "prove" just to startle you)
>As if to prove my point about the prevalence of etymological
>misinformation, Dennis is here subscribing to the common but erroneous
>explanation of the phrase "the exception proves the rule."  Many people
>will strongly maintain that this phrase uses "proves" in an old sense of
>"tests."  In fact, the meaning of the phrase is that "by specifying the
>cases excepted, one strengthens the hold of the rule over all cases not
>excepted" (Bryan Garner).
I posted dInIs privately to this effect, citing
'...the disquisition on ads-l a few years back on how the "prove" in "the
exception (that) proves the rule" did NOT originally mean 'test' but
derives instead from a Latin legal proverb, later incorporated into British
legal discourse, that (the observance of) an exception proves the
(existence of) the rule IN CASES NOT EXCEPTED.  So if the sign says NO
RIGHT TURN ON RED on a particular corner, that proves the (existence of)
the rule that right turns on red are permissible on other corners in that
jurisdiction.  It's a great Gricean principle which I'm fond of citing in
my pragmatics classes, and it shows that the use of "prove" in the proverb
is the ordinary, new-timey one...'

but if anyone wants evidence supporting Fred's and my observations here,
the post I was referring to was due to Carl Berkhout and forwarded to the
list by Rudy Troike on 5 February 1996; I copy it below.  I assume Fred's
Bryan Garner reference, with which I'm not familiar, is along the same


> On "I think the exceptions only prove but do not destroy the rule": in
> the original French of this maxim, PROUVER [= to test], the maxim is
> true; when the English PROVE is substituted in the translation, it is
> obviously false.  When we're done with the repetitions of words frozen
> in form as the result of a rhyme or the use in a proverbial saying,
> maybe we can discuss counterfactual generalizations such as this which
> are repeated time and again as if they meant something.
>                 David Bergdahl
>                 Ohio University/Athens

Actually, the usage is historically quite correct and is confirmed in Latin
legal documents.  (The operative French term for "test" would be
"éprouver," not "prouver".)  The people on alt.usage.english were arguing
about this last spring.  Here's the archival summary:

>    The common misconception about "The exception proves the rule"
> (which you will find in several books, including the _Dictionary
> of Misinformation_) is that "proves" means "tests".  That is *not*
> the case, although "proof" *does* mean "test" in such phrases as
> "proving ground", "proof spirit", "proofreader", and "The proof of
> the pudding is in the eating."
>    As MEU says, "the original legal sense" of the "the exception
> proves the rule" is as follows: "'Special leave is given for men to
> be out of barracks tonight till 11.0 p.m.'; 'The exception proves
> the rule' means that this special leave implies a rule requiring
> men, except when an exception is made, to be in earlier.  The value
> of this in interpreting statutes is plain."
>    MEU2 adds: "'A rule is not proved by exceptions unless the exceptions
> themselves lead one to infer a rule' (Lord Atkin).  The formula in full is
>  _exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis_."
>   [That's Latin for "The exception proves the rule in cases not excepted."]

>    The phrase seems to date from the 17th century.  (Anthony Cree,
> in _Cree's Dictionary of Latin Quotations_ (Newbury, 1978) says
> that the phrase comes from classical Latin, which it defines as
> Latin spoken before A.D. 400; but no classical citations have
> come to our attention.)  Below are the five seventeenth-century
> citations we could find.  1, 3, and 4 are in the OED; 2 is in
> _Latin for Lawyers_ by E. Hilton Jackson and Herbert Broom; 5 is
> in _A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and
> Seventeenth Centuries_, by Morris Palmer Tilley.
> 1. 1617 Samuel Collins, _Epphata to F.T.; or, the Defence of the
>    Bishop of Elie concerning his answer to Cardinall Ballarmine's
>    Apologie_ 100:  "Indefinites are equivalent to universalls
>    especially where one exception being made, it is plaine that all
>    others are thereby cut off, according to the rule Exceptio
>    figit regulam in non exceptis."  [Note that "figit" rather than
>    "probat" is here used.  "Probo" can mean any of "give official
>    approval to", "put to the test", or "demonstrate the verity of";
>    but "figo" can only mean "fix", "fasten", or "establish".]
> 2. _The reports of Sir Edvvard Coke, Kt., late Lord Chief-Justice
>    of England_ (1658 edition; Sir Edward Coke died in 1634): "[...]
>    upon which Award of the Exigent, his Administrators brought a
>    Writ of Error; and it was adjudged, That the Writ of Error did
>    lie, and the reason was, Because that by the Awarding of the
>    Exigent, his Goods and Chattels were forfeited, and of such
>    Awards which tend _ad tale grave damnum_ of the party, a Writ of
>    Error lieth, although the Principal Judgment was never given; in
>    this case, _Exceptio probat regulum_, & _sic de similibus_."
>    ["A writ of error lieth" = "an appeal is admissible"; "exigent"
>    = writ of suspension of civil rights; _ad tale grave damnum_ =
>    "to such great loss"; _sic de similibus_ = "thus about similar things".]
> 3. 1640 Gilbert Watts, _Bacon's Advancement and proficience of
>    learning_ VIII. iii. Aph. 17:  "As exception strengthens the
>    force of a Law in Cases not excepted, so enumeration weakens it
>    in Cases not enumerated."  [So when Lewis Carroll wrote "I am
>    fond of children (except boys)", he affirmed his fondness for
>    girls more strongly than he would have had he written merely "I
>    am fond of children."]
> 4. 1664 John Wilson, _The Cheats_, To Reader:  "For if I have shown
>    the odd practices of two vain persons pretending to be what they
>    are not, I think I have sufficiently justified the brave man
>    even by this reason, that the exception proves the rule."  [The
>    OED (but not the other books I checked) gives the date as 1662.
>    As far as I can tell from this scant context, Wilson seems to be
>    saying, "My description of two cowardly cheats should serve to
>    show you the bad consequences of not being brave, and hence
>    convince you of the need for a rule: 'Be brave!'."]
> 5. 1666 Giovanni Torriano, _Piazza universale di proverbi italiani,
>    or A Common Place of Italian Proverbs_ I, p. 80 "The exception
>    gives Authority to the Rule." note 28, p. 242 "And the Latin
>    says again, Exceptio probat Regulam."
> To convince us that *in this particular phrase* "proves" originally
> meant "tests", you will have to cite any quotations as old as or
> older than these to support your view.

Here's another, from the Michigan Early Mod Texts, though it's ambiguous:

> 1622
> For, if any man would be exquisite therein, and speake rightly
> according to the rules thereof, it is necessarie hee should turne ouer
> the most part of Grammaticall Commentaries, that he may the better
> make election which of them were fittest to bee followed; though he
> confesseth, that it would be a perpetuall and an vnprofitable labour,
> to gather all rules, to examine all places of Authours, and out of
> all these to put all occurent exceptions vnto rules;
>       webbe, j., truth, 16-17

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