Friday’s Phrase – The Proof is in the Pudding

Welcome to the weekly series “Friday’s Phrase”. A whimsical and informative look at the idioms, phrases, proverbs and colloquialisms we commonly use, what they mean, and where they came from.

This week’s phrase:           “the proof is in the pudding”

Hopefully you recognize this phrase having heard it before in your own lives. When my beloved sister offered it as a phrase for this series, I recognized it just as she wrote it and with a clear perception of what it meant. I was right about the meaning, but wrong about everything else.

Current accepted meaning:

Informal

  1. To fully test something, you need to experience it.

“This idea looks great on paper, but the proof is in the pudding.”

Historical Recorded Use:

The earliest text that there is supporting documentary evidence, albeit a translation from French to English’, is Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux’s Le Lutrin, 1682:

“The proof of th’ Pudding’s seen i’ th’ eating.”

 The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations dates it back to the early 14th century, albeit without offering any supporting evidence for that view. The phrase is widely attributed to Cervantes’ in The History of Don Quixote. This appears to be by virtue of an early 18th century translation by Peter Motteux, which has been criticized by later scholars as ‘a loose paraphrase’ and ‘Franco-Cockney’. Crucially the Spanish word for pudding – ‘budín’, doesn’t appear in the original Spanish text.

Etymology:

As referenced above, this phrase is just shorthand for ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’. That makes sense at least, whereas the shortened version really doesn’t mean anything. Nor does the oft-quoted incorrect version ‘the proof of the pudding’. Many people fail to see the sense of any of these though. The meaning becomes clearer when it is realized that ‘proof’ here means ‘test’. The more common meaning of proof in our day and age is in the noun form, with the meaning ‘demonstrating something to be true’ – as in a mathematical or legal proof. The verb form, meaning ‘to test’, is less often used these days. Clearly the distinction, between these two forms of the word, was originally quite slight and the proof in a ‘showing to be true’ sense is merely the successful outcome of a test of whether a proposition is correct or not.

Conclusion:

I find it interesting that, although the phrase has been misquoted frequently and relegated to the paraphrased version we hear most often today, the meaning has held strong. When my sister wrote, ‘the proof is in the pudding’, I knew exactly what it meant, having used it myself on many occasions. What I didn’t know is that the true phrase had much less ambiguity. It seems strange that we would shorten a phrase to a length that promotes a less clear understanding of the meaning. Maybe it reflects our fast-paced world now that requires all things live in great brevity to be noticed or used. It is also strange that I now have an intense craving for pudding.

 

Bonus Phrase: (provided at no extra charge)

Although the verb form, meaning ‘to test’, is not as common in our modern era, it does survive in several commonly used phrases and words:

‘the exception that proves the rule’

‘proofread’

‘proving-ground’

Comments
2 Responses to “Friday’s Phrase – The Proof is in the Pudding”
  1. If I’m going to be wrong, at least you are a class act with whom to be wrong! Interesting little fact!

    • Brad Osborne says:

      I wouldn’t see it as being wrong. The phrase has become more readily recognized as the paraphrased version. In fact, until I wrote this entry, I had never heard the full phrase used before. Thank you for the suggestion and send them along any time.

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