Sayings, proverbs, adages, idioms—they have a taken-for-granted quality about them, their wisdom and utility packaged in a tidy bundle of words ready for us to drop into our sundry communication needs. But have you ever stopped to consider them—I mean, really looked at them up close? They’re very strange.
Take paint the town red, an expression for boisterous partying. What does red paint have to do with rambunctious fun? The source of the saying is much disputed, but it's popularly refrained that in 1837, a roguish Marquis of Waterford led a riotous spree through the English town of Melton Mowbray, literally painting several of its buildings red (it was lit, apparently). The saying, however, wasn't first printed until 1883 and in the U.S. at that, leaving this expression vulnerable to a host of other colorful origin stories.
Such etymological obscurity isn’t uncommon when it comes to idiomatic language, whose root creativity is lost to time even as the phrases prove their value in our everyday speech and writing. Nor is it terribly rare for us to warp an expression over time—sometimes even capsizing its original meaning altogether.
Like the devil’s in the details, used to emphasize the importance of the nitty-gritty, often hidden or overlooked, elements of a project. But this saying, not evidenced until 1963, actually comes from a German proverb. It advised that it’s in fact God who is in the singular detail.
Let’s have a look at some other such sayings whose devilish—or divine, I mean—details we haven’t quite heeded over time.
"The proof is in the pudding."
Need proof? It’s in the pudding. “Dieting is hard, but if you stick to it, the proof is in the pudding,” we might say. Or, “He’s a bad person. Look at his words. Look at his actions. The proof is in the pudding.”
By proof, here, we usually mean “evidence” or “verification,” but what is this pudding? A bowl of tapioca—or chocolate, if you prefer? And why are we seeking confirmation in it?
There’s good reason the saying doesn’t make much sense, as often and freely as we might use it. It’s because the proof wasn’t originally in the pudding. It was in the eating of said pudding. And what’s more, neither proof nor pudding originally meant what we commonly take them to today.
The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs traces the original expression, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, to an earlier formulation dating to as early as 1300: “Jt is ywrite that euery thing Hymself sheweth in the tastyng,” or “It is written that everything shows itself in tasting.” We can thank English author William Camden for the modern iteration in 1623: “All the proofe of a pudding, is in the eating.”
For Camden, proof was “the act of testing or making trial,” as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) glosses this particular sense of the word. It dates back to the 14th century and indeed is closely related to proof in the “truth”-y way we mainly use it today. The expression to put to the proof, or “test,” preserves this meaning.
And the pudding Camden was testing couldn’t be whipped up from a box of Jell-O instant mix. It was more like a sausage, historically the entrails of a pig or a sheep stuffed with some oats and such. This sense lives on in black pudding, also known as blood sausage. Appetizing? Perhaps mortally so. Think if those innards weren’t cooked all the way through—something you wouldn’t know, though, until you tried it out by biting into it. That’s the proof of the pudding.
As eminent etymologist Michael Quinion put it: “The proverb literally says that you won’t know whether food has been cooked properly until you try it. Or, putting it figuratively, don’t assume that something is in order or believe what you are told, but judge the matter by testing it.”
Over the centuries, in the eating fell from Camden's original phrase; we can get lazy as speakers. Its remaining words were jumbled around into the proof is in the pudding (we can also get very messy); Quinion finds this formulation in American newspapers by the 1920s. The meaning of proof evolved, and pudding—especially for American-English speakers, who primarily use pudding for the sweet version—lost all savory associations. A new saying emerged.
"The exception proves the rule."
The word proof, or its verb form, prove, can get us into trouble in another common saying: the exception proves the rule, which we like to issue in the face of some counterexample or challenge to our conventional wisdom.
Say you always—predictably—eat tapioca pudding. Then, on a whim, you get chocolate. Your dining companion calls you out on your surprise order, to which you rejoin with a shrug: “Well, the exception proves the rule,” sweeping away your own inconsistencies.
Think about that. No, not your unusual appetite for pudding, or the fact that you’re actually ordering it at a restaurant for dessert. How is that your choice of chocolate (the exception) proves the rule (you’re always spooning down tapioca)? It does anything but. The exception contradicts it.
The logical breakdown behind the exception proves the rule stems from a lexical breakdown. One common effort to right the phrase centers on prove, which, as we previously saw, had an earlier meaning of “to test.” It’s an exception to a rule, this explanation goes, that tests the validity of that rule in the first place. If you can make sense of the exception, the rule is upheld.
Still not satisfied? Nor are logicians. Or lexicographers. This maxim ultimately comes from a Latin legal principle, found in English by the 17th century: exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis, or “the exception confirms the rule in the cases not excepted.” Exception (exceptio) here is “the act of exception,” i.e., making an exception, as opposed to a “violation” or “anomaly.”
Let’s say your favorite restaurant has an asterisk on the menu: “No pudding served on Mondays.” That implies pudding is served on all other days. There’s an exception (no pudding on Mondays) that otherwise confirms a rule exists that otherwise apples (they serve pudding).
Except on Mondays.
Linguist Arika Okrent takes, er, exception to sticklers who insist we’ve utterly corrupted the original Latin phrase. Having lost part of the maxim (“in the cases not excepted”) has surely morphed the meaning, but Okrent argues that we now use the exception proves the rule to highlight just how unusual, how incongruous, the exception at hand is. It begs the question: Who actually eats chocolate pudding, anyways?
"That begs the question..."
Begs the question—there’s another phrase that many take exception to. I used it above, as most use it, to mean “raises the question.” Others use it for “evades the question.” And yet the phrase has lots of grammar scolds frowning and tsk-tsk-ing as they reach for their red pens.
As writer and editor Stan Carey explains, beg the question was traditionally a logical fallacy called petitio principii, essentially circular reasoning or assuming the conclusion. Exhibit: Tapioca is the best pudding because it is everyone’s favorite flavor.
The rest got lost in translation. Linguist Mark Liberman notes that beg the question begins with Aristotle, who discussed various logical fallacies in his On Sophistical Refutations around 350 B.C. One of them is what is better translated as “assuming the original conclusion” in the original Greek. In the Middle Ages, the fallacy was rendered as petitio principii, which we might understand as “the start of the argument” in its original post-classical Latin context. Then, as early as 1581, English writers started writing petitio principii in their vernacular, with this beg once denoting “request” and question a “topic” under discussion. To beg the question, then, was to assert the very thing in argument.
As Carey tells Urbo in an email: “The traditional phrase also hinges on a fairly arcane sense of beg, so ever since its inception it has invited misunderstanding. If petitio principii had been translated as "assume the conclusion", it would probably have been less prone to semantic drift.”
Semantic drift: This refers to how the meaning of words, ever unstable as they jostle around in our mouths and off our fingers, change over time, sometimes dramatically. Nice, for instance, originally meant “foolish” or “ignorant.” Pudding and prove are other relevant examples at hand.
Outside of a few instances in scholarly contexts, no one is using beg the question in its traditional philosophical sense. And yet usage peeves and style guides wail of its misuse—they even bemoan that such abuses are ruining the English language. Semantic drift also explains why this, ahem, aggravates us. Carey writes:
"Semantic drift bothers people for many reasons. One is that when they learn, say, the older sense of decimate or hopefully, they'll want to apply that knowledge. So they become pedantic about it. Information that contradicts it produces cognitive dissonance, so they'll reject or trivialise such information. If they consult a dictionary and find that the definition doesn't match their preference, they'll ignore the experts (while somehow claiming the 'logical' high ground). If they tend towards ego trips and petty power plays, they may be drawn to language use as a way to look down on others or even to berate them in public."
That sayings like beg the question evolve over time, among many other forms of change, aren’t a defect of our language. It’s part of its very DNA. But, as Carey acknowledges to us, the "idea that absolutely everything in language is subject to change is unsettling" to many people. It takes a conscious effort to accept how radically and relentlessly language changes—but a language without this feature is a dead or unused one.
"A rolling stone gathers no moss."
A drift in semantics helps account for the shifting sense of beg the question, but a shift in values may be behind the change in a rolling stone gathers no moss.
And change is indeed the key word to this adage. We commonly use a rolling stone gathers no moss as an expression for “changing things up is good” or “people who keep things moving are independent, free-spirited, ambitious, and creative.” Rolling we associate with activity; moss with stagnation.
But the initial meaning wasn’t so positive. As the OED defines it, the proverb—found in its current form as early as 1542, and with earlier versions reaching back into the 14th century—originally conveyed that “a person who does not settle in one place will not accumulate wealth, status, friends…” Here, a rolling stone connotes an aimless, perhaps even irresponsible wanderer; moss, the fruits of one’s labor.
Words, however, never gather moss. They’re always rolling, and so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the proverbial rolling stone morphed its meaning. Should we thank British rockers The Rolling Stones, who took their name from a Muddy Waters tune, or Bob Dylan’s own era-defining “Like a Rolling Stone”?
We can’t rule out such resonances, but it seems that the accumulations and profits of the proverb’s original intent gathered the negative associations of encumbrances and burdens. And as a culture, perhaps we’ve come to embrace change and difference as virtues, not vices. Variety is the spice of life, as they say.
"You can’t have your cake and eat it, too."
Of course, there are plenty of folks who still use a rolling stone gathers no moss in its traditional sense. Perhaps they even use it in its newer manner, too. That’d be like, well, having your cake and it eating, too.
Or eat your cake and have it too, as this proverb is first formulated. The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs first finds it in John Heywood’s 1546 collection of English proverbs (also an early record of rolling stone): “Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?” That is, “Would you both eat your cake and have your cake?"
“The point of the aphorism,” lexicographer Ben Zimmer writes, “is that sometimes you have to make a choice between two options that cannot be reconciled.” This point, he observes, can be easier to understand in the original, eat/have order of the proverb.
According to Zimmer’s expert sleuthing, the have/eat flip occurs as early as 1749. He suggests that by then, the proverb may have already become cliched, opening it up to language play or popular confusion. It wasn’t until 1940—due to momentum or accident, as so often drives or crashes language—that the newer sequence overtook the eat/have version.
The current form may be less logical, though we’ve already seen that we handle illogical constructions just fine. Zimmer also adds that we might not just think of the cake proverb chronologically, that is, we can’t have our cake and then eat it, too. We might understand simultaneously: We can’t be eating our cake while at the same having in our possession a piece of cake to eat.
I, for one, will stick with pudding.