Thursday, July 12, 2012

Is in the Eating

I’m not sure when exactly I started hearing the words, “The proof is in the pudding”, but I don’t think it was as far back as twenty years ago. Obviously a corruption of the old saying, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating”, the words “The proof is in the pudding” are frequently used despite making no sense. They also make my teeth grit.

The saying, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” goes back to the days when the word “proof” meant “test”. The test of the pudding is in the eating. No matter how pretty it looks, or who made it, or how rich the ingredients are, if it doesn’t taste good, it’s not a good pudding. So by extension, the test of anything is how it performs its given function.

I say that the words “The proof is in the pudding” make no sense, but that is not strictly true. They obviously make sense to the people who use the phrase, and even I know what they mean. If you parse the sentence “The proof is in the pudding”, then it makes no sense. What pudding, where, has this mysterious proof? How would it have got in there? And why pudding, for Heaven’s sake, even if we grant that the usage is the British pudding, what we here in the U.S. call dessert, and not some form of blancmange. True, if you made some kind of brandy sauce for the pudding, the proof would be on the pudding, but that’s a different kind of proof. The logical way to shorten the old saying would be to take out the words “of the pudding” and say “The proof is in the eating”, but I’m sure if you did that, the response you would get is “Huh?”

No, I think the words “The proof is in the pudding” function as what the late Laura Lee (a speech pathologist and professor at Northwestern University) would call a “superword”. Dr. Lee derived a method of scoring syntax development in children, and noted that children who spoke at the word and phrase level would sometimes use sentences like “I don’t wanna”, or “I can’t [do that].” Her explanation was that children learned these sentences as “superwords” even before they had the ability to construct sentences using the independent elements. They knew what the sentences meant, but not how the individual words combined to construct that meaning. 

So it makes sense to me that a nonsensical sentence can function just as well as a superword, and I do indeed know what people mean when they say “The proof is in the pudding”.

I wish I had the talent to write books though. I’d love to write a mystery story in which a chef is murdered while preparing the final course on Chopped - Great Britain. The chef would naturally be in the full sight of the judges and audience when zie has a seizure and dies. At first it is taken as death by natural causes, but one of the judges is an amateur sleuth and finally unmasks the killer.

It turns out the proof is in the pudding.

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