MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why “The Proof Is In The Pudding”

You could definitely ask your buddy whether The Godfather Part II is as good as everyone says it is, but you’ll never know for sure unless you sit through all four hours of it & see it for yourself. After all, the best way to determine the something’s value is to experience it firsthand, right? “The proof is in the pudding”, as they say. But what does that even mean? Why did they put proof in pudding to begin with?

As with a lot of these kinds of sayings, this particular idiom was pretty literal in its beginnings. The earliest known written reference comes from a 1623 volume of the tome “Remains Concerning Britain” by English writer William Camden. Back then, pudding wasn’t the gooey dessert we Americans eat now, it was instead a mishmash of minced meat, spices, cereal…sometimes even blood. Everything got stuffed into an animal casing like a sausage, then it was steamed or boiled. And, because preservative methods weren’t all that great or thorough, and because the FDA didn’t exist back then, there was always a real good chance that your meat dish could make you sick, or possibly even kill you. So, unfortunately, the only way to really find out…was to dig in.

It’s not so much about the proof being in the pudding, but more about eating the pudding to find the proof. Which brings up my next point: “The proof is in the pudding” is actually an abbreviated version of the full phrase, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” It isn’t really surprising that, over the past several centuries, people have shortened the phrase, since the way we talk regularly evolves in ways that affect our understanding of the phrases. For instance, “one bad apple” is actually “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” (even though some folks use the shorter version to mean the exact opposite of the original phrase).

No one knows precisely when “the proof is in the pudding” became the preferred semantics over its wordier (though clearer) ancestor. However, it’s been in our vernacular since at least the 1860s. Engineer Henry Dircks used it in his 1863 novel Joseph Anstey, before it showed up again in an 1867 issue of The Farmer’s Magazine. So, considering it’s roughly 160 years old, you should be able to use the shorter version freely without a fear of being corrected. 160-year-old pudding, though…I wouldn’t recommended trying to find the proof in that. Not anymore.

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