WORDS IN THE HAND: PROOF AND PUDDING
It's offaly complicated, but the proof isn't in the pudding
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
I’m not sure if there is a word for that thing that happens when you hear an unusual word – like cataglottism, say – or see a hedgehog wearing a hat, and suddenly cataglots and hat-wearing hedgehogs start popping up everywhere.
Cynics will say you probably just didn’t notice all that rampant cataglottism and all those hat shops under the hedge before, and it’s only because you have been made aware of these things that you have begun marking their presence, but I like to think there is some sort of magic about these occurrences.
In an instance of the more prosaic sort, I have been spotting verbed nouns all over the place since I wrote about the act of verbing last week. There is nothing magical about this at all: verbed nouns really are all over the place.One that spends a lot of time on my desk is the verb “proof”. Since 1950, this has been an abbreviation of “proofread”, a process performed by people who in another realm might be known as angels, but before this proof existed independently of reading and meant simply “to test”.
Proof is a verb back-formed from the noun “proof” (as in the smoking gun found in the Gupta e-mails), but proof the noun was itself back-formed from the verb “to prove”. As they say on Facebook, it’s complicated.
Just to prove how mixed up language can get, there is the phrase “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, which I have written about before and will certainly write about again, because no amount of writing about it seems to deter those who think the proverb is actually: “the proof is in the pudding.”
The expression comes from the days when puddings were not made of fruit or cake or cream or malva (whatever malva is when it’s at home). The original pudding was a kind of sausage containing bits of offal wrapped in intestine. The Irish black pudding still holds to this tradition, although in a much more sanitised way.
The word “proof” was used in this proverb as the old-fashioned verb “to test”. This is why saying “the proof is in the pudding” makes no sense whatsoever. There is no smoking gun or Atul Gupta lurking beneath the brandy butter, trust me.So what the idiom “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” means is: If you want to know whether something is good, bad, delicious or poisonous, the only way to find out is by trying it, testing it, or, in the archaic sense, proofing it.
This seems like rather a drastic move, if you ask me. If I were served a slice of questionable sausage I’d call in those clever investigators who found out the home address of listeriosis-causing bacteria. I certainly wouldn’t take a bite and wait and see what happens.
I am expecting many puddings to cross my path in the coming week, now that I’ve written about them, and I’m going to be very cautious in how I approach them.