In an interesting article in yesterday’s Daily Mail, Simon Horobin, a Professor of English and Literature at Oxford University, explained why some common phrases are commonly misused. Here are 5 of such phrases and what was said about them:
The proof is in the pudding:
This phrase was first recorded in 1605 as “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
The word “proof” back then meant “test”. The word survives with that meaning today in the word proofreader (and in a weapons proving, or testing, ground).
The meaning of the above phrase is that it doesn't matter how fancy the decoration and presentation, the true test of a pudding is in how it tastes. Or, more generally, the success of something can only be judged by putting it to its intended use.
The exception proves the rule:
On first reading, the phrase seems to say that something that doesn't conform to a rule somehow validates it.
As noted above, the word “prove” used to mean “test”, hence it is frequently claimed that the phrase means that the exception tests the rule. Therefore if an exception invalidates a rule, the rule needs to be discarded. As an example, if the rule is that all birds fly, and someone points to penguins and emus, which do not, those exceptions should mean that the rule is invalid.
This explanation, as attractive as it may be, is based on a misunderstanding of the word “exception”. Rather than referring to something that does not conform to a rule, “exception” here refers to something that has been deliberately excluded from it.
The phrase derives from a translation of a Latin legal maxim, Exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis, which may be translated as “the exception confirms the rule in cases not excepted”.
So a shop sign stating the exception, 'Open late on Thursdays', implies a rule that the shop does not open late on the other days of the week.
Off your own back:
This phrase is often used to refer to something done using one's own initiative.
However, it is a cricketing term and should correctly be “off your own bat”, meaning runs scored by balls hit, rather than runs gained from “extras” such as byes, wides, no-balls, overthrows (or so I read, I’m not a cricket follower. Robin Williams once said that to him, cricket looked like baseball on Valium).
According to Simon Horobin, the traditional association of cricket with fair play and good sportsmanship has given rise to expressions such as 'play with a straight bat', meaning to behave honestly, and “it's just not cricket”, to refer to any behaviour that flouts common standards of decency. If we find ourselves in a tricky situation we may be “stumped”, or “on a sticky wicket”. Someone who has lived to a ripe old age is said to have enjoyed a “good innings”, a phrase which compares long life to a successful period spent at the batting crease, while euphemisms for death include “close of play”, or the “drawing of stumps”.
One foul swoop:
This phrase, used to refer to something that happens all at once, or in one go, should properly be 'one fell swoop'.
It is first recorded in Shakespeare's play Macbeth, where it is used by Macduff on learning of the cruel murder of his wife and children by the tyrannical king: 'All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam, at one fell swoop?'
'Fell' is an archaic word meaning 'fierce' or 'deadly', which only survives in this phrase and in the word 'felon'.
Begs the question:
This phrase is often used as if it means 'raises the question', but that is not its original application.
According to Simon Horobin, it originates in a logical principle discussed by the Greek philosopher Aristotle that refers to the practice of assuming something that an argument sets out to prove.
A crude example of this logical fallacy might be an argument that claims that, since Britain would be better off outside the European Union, the referendum vote was a positive outcome. Since this conclusion is based on an unproven assumption, it carries no force.
More commonly, arguments of this kind are subtle attempts to argue on the basis of an untested claim, so that the phrase is frequently used to mean 'evades the question'.
Much of our confusion may be blamed on the 16th-century translator who chose to render the Latin name for this fallacy, petitio principii, rather inaccurately as 'beg the question', instead of using a more literal – albeit somewhat less snappy – formulation such as 'laying claim to a principle'.
Simon Horobin then raises an interesting aspect:
"All of which raises the question of common usage. Can we be said to be using a phrase incorrectly if it has assumed a new meaning by being repeatedly used in a certain way?"