The Grammarphobia Blog

Is the proof in the pudding?

Q: My pet peeve is misquoting. For example, saying “the proof is in the pudding” when the actual quote should be “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

A: There’s more to this old saying than meets the eye.

Quite often, an axiom is so old that its original form is lost in the mists of time, and its earliest known version has been altered through common usage by succeeding generations of English speakers.

This is the case with the “pudding” proverb, which has been around in various forms for roughly 800 years. We’ve written about it on our blog, but only briefly. So here’s some more detail.

The traditional form of the proverb, at least for the last few hundred years, has been “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” That makes sense; it means you can’t judge something until you’ve tried it.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says, the proverbial phrase and its variants mean that “the efficacy, quality, etc., of something can only be shown by putting it to its intended use.”

But the saying often appears in shorthand as “the proof is in the pudding.” And you’re right—that form does not make literal sense.

It also appears sometimes without a verb: “the proof of the pudding.” This snippet, though, does make sense. As the OED explains, “the proof of the pudding” is “that which puts something to the test or (in later use) proves a fact or statement.”

So much for the various versions. But keep in mind that even the “traditional” form we’ve mentioned isn’t the original version of the proverb, which etymologists may never be able to trace.

Proverbs by their very nature are often handed down orally. They aren’t meant to be exact quotations in the way of, say, lines of poetry or passages from speeches that were recorded in writing on the spot.

What many authorities consider the earliest known written version of this proverb showed up in English sometime before 1400—without the pudding!

Here’s how it looked in Kyng Alisaunder, a medieval poem written by an unknown author sometime in the 1300s: “It is ywrite [written] that euery thing Hym self sheweth in the tastyng.” (We replaced the runic letters known as thorns with “th.”) The OED says that in this quotation, “tasting” is used in a general sense to mean trying or testing.

The OED’s earliest record of the proverb in its modern “pudding” version—“All the proofe of a pudding, is in the eating”—is from William Camden’s Remaines of a Greater Worke, Concerning Britaine, published in 1605.

In that same year, Miguel de Cervantes published the first part of his Don Quixote in Spanish. In one episode of the novel, Sancho Panza says to Don Quixote, “al freír de los huevos lo verá” (“you’ll see when the eggs are fried”).

When Peter Anthony Motteux translated Don Quixote into English in 1700, he rendered that line very loosely, as “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” The same line was translated in 1755 by Tobias Smollett in a similar way: “the proof of the pudding, is in the eating of it.”

Footnotes in both Motteux’s and Smollett’s translations offer explanations of Cervantes’s Spanish. A 1749 edition of Motteux, for example, has this note:

“The original runs, it will be seen in the frying of the eggs. When eggs are to be fry’d, there is no knowing their goodness till they are broken. … Or, a thief stole a frying-pan, and the woman, who own’d it, meeting him, ask’d him what be was carrying away & he answer’d, you will know when your eggs are to be fry’d.”

Meanwhile, another version of the proverb showed up in 1682 in an English translation of a long poem by Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, Le Lutrin (1672-74). The line was rendered as “The proof of th’ pudding’s seen i’ the eating.”

There’s a similar version in Italian as well. Ferdinando Altieri’s Dizionario Inglese ed Italiano (English and Italian Dictionary, 1726), says the Italian proverb “La pruova del testo è la torta” translates into English as “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” (Torta is Italian for cake.)

For an early American example, we can go to the writings of Alexander Hamilton (1727): “I leave them to my Reader, with the old Proverb to accompany them, that the Proof of the Pudding is in eating it.”

We did some searches for early examples of the shorter phrase, “the proof of the pudding,” and came up with a couple of examples from the 18th century.

This passage is from a 1789 issue of The Monthly Review, a British literary journal: “As to the proof of the pudding, indeed, some of us may pretend to a little experience, in that respect.”

This earlier example is from A Tea-Table Miscellany, a collection of songs and poems published in 1762: “The proof of the pudding lies there.”

The OED has some more recent citations:

“The proof of the pudding is that some of our students break into print even before they finish the course” (from an ad in Parenting magazine, 1990).

“And the proof of the pudding is a very simple statement that the President keeps repeating: ‘It’s better to kill them there than to have them kill us here’” (from an article in the New Yorker, 2004).

As for the version that bugs you, it’s been around for nearly a century and a half. Although the OED doesn’t have any citations for “the proof is in the pudding,” a search of Google Books finds lots and lots of them. Here are a couple from the mid-1800s:

1863: “The proof is in the pudding—or the turkey if you please, so I will even ring for it” (from Joseph Anstey, a novel by D. S. Henry, the pen name of Henry Dircks).

1867: “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” (from The Farmer’s Magazine).

By the way, the proverbial “pudding” wasn’t a dessert, but a sausage. As the OED explains, the proverb used the noun in its original sense.

When it entered English in the late 13th century, Oxford says, “pudding” meant “the stomach or one of the entrails (in early use sometimes the neck) of a pig, sheep, or other animal, stuffed with a mixture of minced meat, suet, oatmeal, seasoning, etc., and boiled; a kind of sausage.”

And as we all know, you can’t judge a sausage by its skin—that is, without tasting it. You first!

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