A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (92)?…


The proof of the pudding

This phrase is shorthand for the proof of the pudding is in the eating and conveys the sense that to you have to experience something to really test it. It is a very old proverb, dating, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, to the 14th century, although no quotation or attribution is provided to support the claim. William Camden recorded the phrase, possibly in English print for the first time, in his 1605 edition of Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning Britaine, “all the proof of a pudding is in the eating”.

We associate a pudding with a dessert which we would eat at the end of our meal – I will not enter the controversy as to whether cheese should be served before or after dessert – but at the time of that the proverb made its appearance a pudding would have been a savoury dish. The Oxford English Dictionary defined a mediaeval pudding as “the stomach or one of the entrails of a pig, sheep or other animal, stuffed with a mixture of minced meat, suet, oatmeal etc and boiled”. It must have been similar to a haggis.

Our friend Camden sheds some further light by recording the proverb, “if you eat a pudding at home, the dog may have the skin”, which suggests it may have been stuffed inside a skin, a bit like a sausage. I am tempted to think that Camden’s dog got hold of his manuscript which is why what are left with are Remaines, but that may be another story. With the ingredients that may have been in a pudding, testing it before you ate it would seem to be eminently sensible.

Puddings were also deployed to provide idiomatic assistance to our obsession with time. If someone arrived at pudding time, they had got there just in time for the meal to start. And the phrase began to be used figuratively, to give the sense of a timely arrival, as evidenced by this usage in John Heywood’s A dialogue conteinyng the number in effect of all the prourbes in the Englishe tongue of 1546, “this geare comth euen in puddyng tyme rightly”.

For those more obsessive about time and punctuality, pudding time seemed a bit vague and during the 16th century the phrase in the nick of time made an appearance, an idiom we still use today. It conveys the sense that something happened at precisely the right moment. Nicks and notches were used on measuring sticks and the like to provide consistency and perhaps even precision to the measurement of volume. Pre-marked nicks were also used to adjust musical instrument and timepieces as Ben Jonson suggested in his play Pans Anniversary of around 1636, “there is annexed a clock-keeper, a grave person, as Time himself, who is to see that they all keep time to a nick”.

Of course, as pudding retreated down the order of the menu, in the nick of time was ready to step in at the eleventh hour. This may be an allusion to the parable in Matthew 20 of the labourers in the vineyard but is more likely to have been a reference to the Roman method of numbering the hours, twelve for daytime and twelve for night time. The eleventh would be just at the end of the day or night and so the phrase has been adopted to convey a sense of just in time.

Time for me to go, methinks.


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