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Jewish World Review July 8, 2004 / 19 Tamuz, 5764

Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Dictionary, Tenth Edition

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Consumer Reports

'The proof is in the pudding'; 'Pyrrhic victory' | Dear Editor:

Although I understand the gist of it, what exactly is the meaning and source of the expression "the proof is in the pudding''?

— I.N., Gettysburgh, Pa.

Dear I.N.:

"The proof is in the pudding'' is actually a shortened version of a very old proverb, "the proof of the pudding is in the eating.'' It means that the real worth or success or effectiveness of something can only be determined by putting it to the test, appearances and promises aside - just as the best test of a pudding is to eat it.

Sometimes the saying is reduced even further to simply a noun phrase, "proof of the pudding'' or "the proof in the pudding.'' Then it is used to mean "confirmation'' or "real test,'' as in "the proof of the pudding is if no one gets hurt.'' In fact, the shortened versions are used much more frequently nowadays than the long proverb with the "eating'' phrase.

There are sources that say the maxim goes back in English to the 14th century. Though unsubstantiated, the claim is not without plausibility. But watch out! Back then no one was talking about the kind of sweet "pudding'' confections we now get mostly from boxed mixes or pull-top snack cans or cafeteria counters.

Fourteenth century puddings were gutsy! What they were, essentially, were sausages - mixtures of meat, cereal, spices, and often blood, stuffed into intestines or stomach, and boiled.

If you're wondering "why pudding?'' it's useful to know that puddings were held in much higher esteem at one time, so much so that there was another old saying that went, in part, "if a woman knows how to make a pudding, ... she knows enough for a wife.'' Husbands back then expected at least one pudding a day on the table. Even the eminent 18th-century literary figure Samuel Johnson saw fit to commend his friend, the poet and translator Elizabeth Carter, thus - "(she) could make a pudding as well as translate Epictetus from Greek ...'' Add to that the concealed nature of pudding ingredients - whether in a blood pudding or one of the traditional sweet puddings full of dried fruit and nuts and enclosed in a dumpling crust - and the logic behind the expression becomes far less mysterious.

Whatever its actual origins, we find the expression in print since the 17th century. We have examples of its use by the English historian William Camden, by Jonathan Swift and Alexander Hamilton, and by Joseph Addison in his Spectator magazine, and it still remains popular today, in one or another of its versions.

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Dear Editor:

Yesterday I heard a pundit on television use the term "Pyrrhic victory.'' I do know vaguely what the word "Pyrrhic'' means, but how did it come about?

— W.P., Seattle, Wash.

Dear: W.P.:

A Pyrrhic victory is one that is achieved at a very high cost or to the point of actually outweighing its benefits. Wars are often referred to as Pyrrhic victories when they result in a large number of casualties.

The word "Pyrrhic'' derives from "Pyrrhus,'' the name of the ruler of Epirus, a country in northwestern Greece, Pyrrhus often got into wars with neighboring countries, and in 280 B.C. he went to Italy to fight the Romans with an army of 25,000 men. Although he won that battle, many of his soldiers died. The following year he fought another battle against the Romans in the Apuli region of Italy, and again, despite winning, he lost a large number of his men. After that second battle, Pyrrhus was quoted as saying, "Another such victory over the Romans and we are undone.''

The phrase "Pyrrhic victory'' didn't enter the English language until the 19th century, but some time after that the adjective "Pyrrhic'' began to expand in usage. You might now hear, for example, of a "Pyrrhic'' invention (one for which many lives are sacrificed to save a smaller number of others). Separately, "Pyrrhic'' can also be a noun referring to an ancient Greek dance performed usually in rapid tempo to the accompaniment of a flute.

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06/25/04: 'Abnegate' and 'abdicate'; 'feet of clay'; 'difugalty'
06/17/04: 'Whinge'; 'whole cloth'
06/10/04: 'The devil to pay'; 'crack', as in 'a crack marksman'; 'the dog that didn't bark'
06/03/04: 'Surrounded on three sides'; sleuths
05/18/04: 'Of the first water'; horses and horseradish; more
05/06/04: 'Historic' v. 'historical'; 'prestigious' = 'trickery'?; 'can of corn' as sports phrase
04/27/04: Derivation of 'bozo'; 'elt'; 'spill the beans'
04/21/04: Meaning of "budget'' in the word "fussbudget''; "bleeding hearts''; "skycap''
04/01/04: "Thin red line''; "doak"; "level playing field"
03/22/04: "King Canute"; "vodka"; "Cheese it. The cops!''
03/16/04: "Carrot and stick''; "hue and cry''; Where did the term "flea market'' originate?
03/09/04: Going "haywire"; "close, but no cigar"; "mahatma"
03/01/04: "Roundheel'' and "well-heeled''; "milquetoast"; "sick as a dog''
02/26/04: "Charley horse"; "`Foolproof''; "cracker-barrel''
02/17/04: "Dunce''; titles "Mr.'' and "Mrs.''; "under the weather''
02/10/04: "Turnpike''; "dead reckoning''
02/02/04: "Mutt"; "lobby" in its political sense; "procrustean bed"
01/27/04: "Decimate"; "duende"; a dessert "junket"?
01/14/04: Is "MacGuffin" related to all the "Mac" and "Mc" words we've been hearing about recently?; "afghans" and "Afghans"; "since Hector was a pup"
01/09/04: Confused about the word "hearsay"; "Burgle"; "waiting in line" or "waiting on line"?
12/31/03: The past tense of "plead''; Is "old adage'' redundant?; Where did "lounge lizard'' come from?
12/15/03: "Ostracize" and "oyster''?; Where does the "mentor'' come from?; "jeopard''
12/02/03: "Karats'' and "carats'' — meaning of and difference between; why apostrophe in "'cello''?; "hell-bent for leather''
11/18/03: "Hoosegow,''; why the little finger is called the "`pinkie''; difference between "lady'' and "dame''
11/13/03: 'Take it on the lam'; 'decorum'; 'you look like the wreck of the Hesperus'
11/03/03: Origin of "hypnosis"/"hypnotism"; "all right" or "alright"; emote
10/28/03: "Blue plate special"; how to use "hoi polloi''; "Peck's Bad Boy''
10/20/03: Who was the person the artist who first used "silhouette" as an art form?; why are they called migraine headaches?; origin of "keep one's shirt on"
10/13/03: "Grey'' in "greyhound'' has nothing to do with the color?; "at loggerheads''
09/29/03: Where does the word "karaoke" comes from?; people or persons?; "synecdoche"
09/23/03: Using "eke'' correctly; fedora; why do we call an especially flattering biography a "hagiography''?
09/10/03: Why do we call a zero score in tennis "love''?; "biannual'' or "semiannual''?; Is there any difference between "further'' and "farther''?; dilemma of using "dilemma''
09/02/03: "Out loud'' rather than "aloud''; "pushing the envelope''; "without rhyme or reason''
08/25/03: "Cheesy''; "hold a candle''
08/11/03: "Halcyon days''; Why isn't "sacrilegious'' spelled "sacreligious''?; "red light'' and "green light'' as expression — which came first, the inaction or the signals?
08/04/03: "Votive'' candles; "cosmeticizing"; "potluck''
07/28/03: Why ‘debt’ has a ‘b’ in it; "south moon under''; why "Rx'' is used for prescriptions
07/21/03: "Romance" & "Rome"?; punching & clocks; "conversate"
07/14/03: "Lukewarm''; Where did we get the word "wig'' for a fake head of hair?
07/09/03: Why doesn't "Arkansas'' rhyme with "Kansas''? ; "Catawampus"; "Jimmie Higgins work"
06/30/03: "Foozle"; author who wrote an entire novel without using a certain letter of the alphabet?; "kith and kin"
06/23/03: "On the fritz"; "knuckle down''
06/17/03: How did "lazy Susan'' come to be used for the rotating tray?; woolgathering'' as synonym for "idle daydreaming''; "in harm's way''
06/09/03: "Clotheshorse"; a god named "Ammonia"?
05/29/03: With kid gloves; "receipt'' = "recipe''?; from soup to nuts

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