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Proofs for puddingheads

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April October 19, 2008 06:15 PM
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In today's On Language column, William Safire argues that our modern streamlining of the old saying "the proof of the pudding is in the eating" does violence to the original. Shortening it, as Gwen Ifill did on TV recently, to "the proof is in the pudding" has "leached out its historical meaning," says Safire.

I've written about "the proof is in the pudding" before, but unlike Safire and Michael Quinion, whom Safire quotes, I thought the expression remained pretty transparent in its short form. "The proof is in the pudding" surely implies that you taste the pudding -- nobody takes it to mean that the proof is conceealed inside the pudding, like a fortune in a fortune cookie.

But I'd never looked into the age of the short version. Its popularity is relatively new -- you can tell that by the fact that many of us grew up with the long form, while there are younger people have heard only the short form -- but is the phrasing itself a 20th-century innovation?

It is not, it turns out. Google Books finds it in an 1863 novel by D.S. Henry: "The proof is in the pudding -- or the turkey if you please, so I will even ring for it."

It shows up in the British Farmer's Magazine in 1867: "Although, as the proof is in the pudding, as seen at this and other gatherings, there was ample material even without cattle, to make a capital show."

And in the U.S., in "The Aunts' Cook Book" in 1922:

Love's protestations naught confirm,
Despite all would-and-shoulding;
Love's labour marks the final test,
The proof is in the pudding.

After the mid-20th century there are abundant examples to choose from, but perhaps my favorite comes from "Acid Test," a 1963 collection by the sharp-tongued theater and film critic John Simon. Simon has long been an outspoken usage traditionalist, but not in this case: "Ultimately, however," he writes, "the proof is in the pudding, and there is no more pudding-headed dramaturgy around town than in 'A Passage to lndia' and 'The Aspern Papers.'"

Perhaps Simon has since repented of his casual usage. But if he didn't see a problem with "the proof is in the pudding," I can pretty much guarantee that the campaign against it is doomed.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at freeman@globe.com.
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