The proof is in the pudding.

The mousse did it.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the saying “the proof’s in the pudding” come from? My mom told me to look it up because she used it, but I can’t find anything about it except for people using it, nothing about what it means or where it came from! — Sammy.

Well, that’s because you’re probably using Google. Google is good for many things, but when what you want is the story behind something (as opposed to simply a sense of how many people are talking about it), it’s like trying to take a sip from a firehose. Next time you’re looking for a word or phrase origin, go to our website at www.word-detective.com and scroll down to the bottom of any page. There you’ll find a specially-configured Google search box that only searches reliable English etymology websites. Even if I haven’t covered the topic, you may find that someone else has.

I actually did cover “the proof is in the pudding” about eight years ago, but it’s a common question, so we’ll take it for another spin. “The proof is in the pudding” is a popular figure of speech meaning “the quality, effectiveness or truth of something can only be judged by putting it into action or to its intended use” (“So the proof is in the pudding: they made a big pronouncement on crime prevention, and now they have to follow through,” Edmonton Sun, 3/25/08).

At first glance, “the proof is in the pudding” seems thoroughly mysterious. What proof, in what pudding? Does this have anything to do with Colonel Mustard in the study with a candlestick? But the key to the mystery lies in the fact that “the proof is in the pudding” is actually a mangled form of the original phrase, which was “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” A dish may have been made from a good recipe with fresh ingredients and look delicious, but you can really only judge it by putting it in your mouth. The actual taste is the only true criterion of success.

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating” is a very old phrase, dating back to at least 1605, and “proof” in the adage is an antiquated use of the word in the sense of “test” (also found in “printer’s proof,” a preliminary “test” copy of a book printed to check for errors, etc., before commencing a large print run).

Just how and why “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” was shortened to the semi-nonsensical “the proof is in the pudding” remains a mystery, but it’s worth noting that most people now interpret “proof” in the sense of “conclusive evidence.” That’s probably just as well, since “the test is in the pudding” would make, if possible, even less sense. In any case, “the proof is in the pudding” is hardly the only English idiom that doesn’t make any sense if read literally, and it certainly serves a useful purpose, even if it does sound like a cryptic clue from a Sherlock Holmes story.

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