Language Matters: Proving the Pudding and Changing the Dial
Samantha Parish / Stuff
The proof of the pudding is in the eating of it: an English idiom that native speakers understand, though it makes little sense if broken down into its constituent parts.
Paul Warren is Professor of linguistics at Victoria University of Wellington. Language Matters is a bimonthly column on language.
OPINION: At a recent meeting, I was struck – not for the first time – how difficult it must be for learners of English to understand sentences that we usually take for granted but which at first sight seem unrealistic. have little to do with the meanings they convey.
The language examples were idiomatic phrases, which native speakers and learners with sufficient experience know to treat as complete ideas, but where an analysis in terms of their component parts might not make much sense.
One was the phrase “the proof of the pudding will be…”. The original full idiom is “The proof of the pudding is in eating it”, which means that the value or success of something should be tested by trying it, just like you can’t really tell if something you have cooked is a success in tasting it.
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According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this idiom or proverbial phrase dates back to the early 17th century, so it had plenty of time for it to become established and for the elliptical “pudding proof” shape to appear.
I’ve also heard this idiom shortened to “The proof is in the pudding”. Indeed, the St Louis Post Dispatch (December 21, 2018) quotes Devon Allman of The Allman Brothers. When discussing a new album, he said that “at the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding, and the pudding is this record.”
The other sentence was “shift the dial”, as in “we need to change the dial when it comes to…” If a learner were to look up the component words in a dictionary, they might risk the sentence meaning something to do. with moving a clock from one place to another. However, the intended meaning was that the group concerned had to make a radical change in relation to the question under discussion.
The meaning could stem from the notion of getting a better or different signal on a transistor radio by turning the knob or dial that controls the tuning. In our digital, push-button world, the origins of this idiom must become increasingly opaque.
Most native speakers and advanced learners will easily understand such sentences, taking them as a whole, rather than parsing them into their parts and piecing together meaning based on the meanings of the parts. The meaning of the whole sentence is usually figurative rather than literal. This is common with multi-word expressions such as idioms.
One of our recent graduates, Aileen Xinqing Wang, studied in her doctoral research whether coaching English learners about the origins of idiomatic expressions could help them learn their meaning. Aileen asked learners to guess the figurative meanings of idioms such as “bark the wrong tree” or “jump the gun”.
The literal foundations were then explained (e.g., “jumping the gun” of athletics, meaning to start running before the starter’s gun was fired) and learners were again asked to guess the figuratively. If necessary, the figurative meanings were then explained to them. A week later, the same students were given the same idioms and asked to recall their meanings.
Aileen found that accuracy was higher if students were able to infer the figurative meaning for themselves from the explanation of the literal meaning. So while the literal meaning of some of these idioms may be lost in the mists of time, explaining them can sometimes help learners make some kind of connection and allow them to understand and learn these idioms.