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Proof of the pudding

Q From Terry Cleary: I have heard BBC reporters say ‘the proof is in the pudding’. Surely the phrase should be the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

A Indeed it should.

However, the version you quote is a form that has been appearing with increasing frequency in books and newspapers, so we ought not to single out the BBC for censure. As another recent instance, the Boston Herald had this in its issue of 3 February 2004: “While the team’s first Super Bowl victory back in 2002 could be explained away by some skeptics as a fluke, the second victory is the proof in the pudding in cementing the Pats’ status as the cream of the NFL crop.“

But examples can be found in American newspapers at least as far back as the 1920s and it became relatively common from the middle 1950s onwards. Slightly different versions also turn up from time to time, such as this about a charity considering its links with Michael Jackson, “Until there’s some proof in the pudding, we will continue to remain neutral” (The Grand Rapids Press, 30 November 2003), and about an election in Canada, “I guess that the proof in the pudding will be on Oct. 2” (Toronto Star, 29 September 2003).

The principal trouble with the proof is in the pudding is that it makes no sense. What has happened is that writers half-remember the proverb as the proof of the pudding, which is also unintelligible unless you know the full form from which the tag was taken, and have modified it in various ways in unsuccessful attempts to turn it into something sensible.

They wouldn’t make this mistake if they knew two important facts. Firstly, the full proverb is indeed the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Secondly, proof here has the sense of “test” (as it also has, or used to have, in phrases such as proving-ground and printer’s proof). The proverb literally says that you won’t know whether food has been cooked properly until you try it. Or, putting it figuratively, don’t assume that something is in order or believe what you are told, but judge the matter by testing it; it’s much the same philosophy as in seeing is believing and actions speak louder than words.

The proverb is ancient — it has been traced back to 1300 in a rather different form and is recorded by William Camden in his Remains Concerning Britain of 1623. It’s sad that it has lasted so long, only to be corrupted in modern times.

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Page created 13 Mar 2004