Proof in the pudding

Found in an R. Crumb cartoon on a postcard I sent out yesterday:

The proof is in the pudding.

The original proverb is

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

But, thanks to the fact that the sense of proof having to do with the trying or testing of something has largely disappeared except in this proverb, in its elliptical form the proof of the pudding, and in the idiom to put to (the) proof, the saying became opaque to many people and was reanalyzed and simplified, to yield the mysterious the proof is in the pudding.

OED3 has the original (with citations from 1605) but not the reanalyzed version, which seems not to have spread until the 20th century.

The American Dialect Society mailing list went over this territory back in July 2007, along with some discussion of the exception that proves the rule (which has a tangled history; see Michael Quinion’s discussion here).

Michael Quinion on July 17, with a cite from the beginning of its spread:

1928 Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois) 5 Aug. 3/4 ‘Proof is in the pudding’ that a successful tennis court need not be a grass court nor even a clay court, when a cinder covered playground is available.

That same day, Charlie Doyle got 297,000 raw ghits for it. That’s up to 309,000 today.

And then David Bowie on July 18:

Cool! I discover that I’ve been the victim of folk etymology! (Or whatever the proverb equivalent of folk etymology is.)

I always thought “The proof is in the pudding” came from the idea that it’s somewhat difficult to make a really good pudding (not as in flavor, but as in absolutely no lumps or trace of graininess)–so the proof of whether someone was actually a good cook would be in whether they were able to make a good pudding for dessert.

People do like to find meaning in otherwise opaque expressions, a fact that dogs the study of eggcorns.

2 Responses to “Proof in the pudding”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Corry Wyngaarden on Facebook with still another rationalization for the newer variant:

    Oh my very English girlfriend and I always thought it was a pun on the proof of rum/brandy used in plum/xmas puddings.

  2. LH Says:

    Thanks! This was a really cool post. I was curious how it played out in the books world, so I went and tried this out on the ngram viewer (http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=proof+is+in+the+pudding%2Cpudding+is+in+the+eating%2Cproof+of+the+pudding+is%2Cof+the+pudding+is+in&year_start=1800&year_end=2007&corpus=5&smoothing=3).

    Because “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” is more than a 5-gram, I tried 3 overlapping 5-grams from it: “proof of the pudding is”, “of the pudding is in”, and “pudding is in the eating” and compared to “proof is in the pudding”.

    The overlapping 5-grams track together nicely, and a quick followup using the links at the bottom confirmed that they’re pretty much all using the original proverb. Though there are some interesting variants: I came across “The *fruit* of the pudding is in the eating” in one of the “pudding is in the eating” references.

    What I found particularly curious is that (as far as I can remember) I’ve never heard the original, only the corrupt version. If you’d asked, I’d have said I hadn’t read the correct one either, but that can’t be true. Because apparently American authors have been using the original in preference to the corrupt version until this decade (and if you look at all English, the original *still* dominates). I had no idea.

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