I just heard someone else say, “the proof is in the pudding.” What’s that supposed to mean?
Sayings become clichés for a reason. They express a thought in a short, easily memorable form that people over a wide range of time and geography want to express. So it gets used over and over.
Sometimes people get careless and don’t say it correctly. All meaning goes out the window, but unfortunately, the mangled version sometimes takes on a life of its own. It becomes as common as the correct, meaningful version, or maybe even more common.
When people try to write it, it sometimes comes out “the proof is in the putting.” as if that makes any more sense.
What’s proof? What’s pudding?
Going back to the question of what “the proof is in the pudding” is supposed to mean, nowadays proof usually means conclusive evidence that something is true. Evidence can be tangible, like objects introduced in court during a trial, or intangible, like a mathematical computation.
The verb form, prove, can also mean to test. So proof can also mean the test by which something is proved true.
Pudding is a sweet dessert. I don’t know about you, but when I have pudding in front of me, I don’t want to look for proof in it. I want to enjoy the flavor and texture. If someone dropped some proof in the pudding, wouldn’t it ruin both?
That’s the modern meaning of pudding. It used to mean something more like a sausage—or haggis. Robert Burns poem “Address to a Haggis” calls it “the great chieftain o’ the pudding-race.”
The real cliché
The correct saying, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” has been attested in print for about 400 years. It uses the second sense of both proof and pudding.
Sausage, being made of ground meat, spoiled easily in warm weather before refrigeration became common. The casing might still look good. From descriptions I’ve seen of haggis, I shudder to think of how sick someone could get from a spoiled one.
But is the pudding good? I would think cutting it open and smelling it would give you a pretty good idea. According to the old saying, however, the only way to tell is to eat some.
Someone who says, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” rarely refers to literal pudding, only metaphorical pudding. Proof of whatever needs testing, in other words, demands personal experience and perhaps some risk.