Jewish World Review July 8, 2004 / 19 Tamuz, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
'The proof is in the pudding'; 'Pyrrhic victory'
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.
"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.
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.
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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