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Of Proofs in Puddings and Roosters in Cabbage Soup

English––as everybody knows––has a faiblesse for alliterative phrasing, but this otherwise appealing poetic ornament can also turn itself into a false friend by inducing a loss of sense. Such is the case of the degradation of the proverb, The proof of the pudding is in the eating, which is at least as old as the seventeenth century in England, perhaps older.

As was demonstrated yet again on the NPR program, “Morning Edition” (KPCC, Pasadena, 10/2/08), in a response to the co-host’s question about the impending Vice Presidential debate, the correspondent Mara Liasson (otherwise a model of good diction and of uncatachrestic speech) reduced this proverb to The proof is in the pudding, as is now commonly done (cf. my Letter to the Editor, “Sour Pudding,” Barron’s,  August 17, 1998, p. 46). The reason for this degraded version, which apparently has been around since the 1950s if not earlier, is nowhere mentioned by the several bloggers who have treated of it but is clear nonetheless: we are dealing here with the proverbial sacrifice of meaning to sound as a terminus ad quem of linguistic change.

Notice: “proof in the pudding” is utterly meaningless, even if one understands proof to have the older meaning “test,” as in The exception proves the rule. It IS perfectly understandable, of course, in the authentic version, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

This sort of counter-sensical development can be seen in other languages as well. The Russian locution popast’ kak kur vó shchi (попасть как кур во щи) ‘land in the (cabbage) soup, get into a mess’ is known to every Russian speaker in just that form but is actually a historically degenerate version of the phrase popast’ kak kur v óshchip, meaning ‘end up being plucked like a rooster’, where kur ‘cock, rooster’ is the archaic or dialectal word for Modern Russian petux, and óshchip is the suffixless deverbal noun ‘plucking [clean]’ < oshchipat’ ‘pluck [clean]’.

Notice: the meaninglessness of the contemporary form, where the final consonant [p] of óshchip has been apocopated, occasioning a metanalysis (boundary shift) and a concomitant reinterpretation (v óshchip > vó shchi) , and the preposition in vó shchi appears irregularly with the stressed full vowel [ó], is exactly parallel to the English example. Just as proofs are not to be found as ingredients of puddings, no recipe––Russian or otherwise––calls for a rooster to end up in cabbage soup, although such a bird can sensibly end up getting plucked.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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