t.paikeday at SYMPATICO.CA
Mon Feb 7 03:33:48 UTC 2000
Here's a lexicographer's two cents worth from his magnum opus "The Native
Speaker Is Dead!" (I am not trying to promote this 1985 book. I had about 1,500
copies left when I moved here to Niagara Falls from Toronto. I left them at the
curb for garbage pickup except for a couple of dozen copies. I am still getting
orders at $17.00 per. But the book will be declared out of print in a matter of
months. One gets tired of filling book orders, you know!).
INQUIRER: ... a digression seems in order to explain the true meaning of the
proverb "Exception proves the rule."
The proverb, as several writers on linguistic myths have pointed out, is one
of the most fatuous of its kind if taken in the popular sense but a universally
applicable maxim in its true meaning.... The original meaning of the word
"proves" happens to be, not "confirm" as the OED glosses it under the entry
EXCEPTION, 1, but "put to the test" as in the OED entry PROVE, b, I, 1,
although the proverb itself is not cited under this entry.
The original meaning is also seen fossilized in current English expressions
such as "the proof of the pudding" and "proving ground." In Conan Doyles's "The
Sign of Four," Sherlock Holmes astutely observes to Dr. Watson: "I never make
exceptions. An exception disproves the rule." There is no doubt that is the
logical and scientific interpretation.
The popular meaning apparently stems from the legal sense of "exception," as
given in OED under EXCEPTION, 4a: "a plea made by a defendant in bar of the
plaintiff's action." It seems to have its origin in Roman Law. Cicero (in "Pro
Balbo," 14.32) said: "Quod si exceptio facit, ne liceat, ibi necesse est
licere, ubi non est exceptum ...." The popular English sense dates (according
to OED) from Samuel Collins (1617), who said "Exceptio figit regulam," and J.
Wilson (1663) who said "Exception firmat regulam in non exceptis" (The Oxford
Dictionary of English Proverbs). The basis of Collins's "figit" (i.e. "fixes")
and Wilson's "firmat" (i.e. "affirms") is not clear and is probably lost in
P.S. Now, I am not so sure! Help welcome. My computer skills also are a bit
rusty. I hope this gets through to the List (TMP).
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