[Ed. Note: Yes, it is not Thursday. But something happened. See, I wrote all these posts in one afternoon and the scheduled them weeks into the future. This week, we were scheduled to run my masterpiece about the much misunderstood phrase “The Proof of the Pudding.” Imagine my surprise when I open the Sunday Times yesterday and see that William Safire has made it the topic of his weekly column. Damn him! I got scooped, and decided to run this today. Thank you for caring.]
A certain kind of usage error occurs when someone hears an idiom whose precise meaning he doesn’t know, assumes (wrongly) that the context provides adequate clues to guess the meaning, and begins using the idiom to mean what he thinks it means.
Fans of The Princess Bride might term this the “inconceivable” fallacy — though Wallace Shawn’s misuse was a special case. (All correct usage is alike. Every usage error is wrong in its own way.)
Most of the time, guessing at meanings from the context is a reasonable way to go. But you get into trouble when a word you know is being used in a sense you don’t know.
Take the verb “prove.” It has two senses, which are…
- to establish beyond doubt or counterexample
- to test
Yes, these senses are related — proving (testing) one’s worth will, we hope, lead to proof (a firm conviction about) of one’s worth — and yes, the second sense is archaic. But there are phrases in current usage which rely on the archaic sense, and their meaning has been hideously corrupted.
Using the archaic sense of “prove”, when we say an exception “proves the rule”, we mean that it gives lie to the rule or may cause us to question it. Indeed, this is the original, correct meaning of the phrase.
In contemporary usage, however, the phrase has come to mean exactly the opposite of that. “The exception that proves the rule” today implies that a counterexample strengthens our conviction that the rule is true (however that works). Worse yet, the fact that it’s a long-standing idiom seems to lend rhetorical weight to whatever argument in whose service the phrase is being misconstrued.
Let’s do another: “The proof is in the pudding.” If we understand the proof to mean incontrovertible evidence, we understand a meaning of something like “only results matter.”
But this short form is actually a corruption of a longer saying “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” (yes, proof means “test” here), which has a subtler connotation: roughly, there are relevant and irrelevant tests for particular things (i.e., the proof of the pudding isn’t in the looking at it).
I wouldn’t suggest you go around correcting people. You’d be acting like a jerk and fighting a battle that’s already been lost. Which is my job.
But I do think the larger issue is worth considering. When particular words or phrases (usually long or complex ones) are used not to mean anything precise or correct but rather to establish status, then propositions are being offered more or less without care for their truth or falsity. This is what the philosopher Harry Frankfort terms “bullshit” (in his enjoyable and highly recommended monograph On Bullshit). Buy it.
Speak simply. George Orwell will thank you, and so will I.
Next Week: We beg the question.