Date: Mon, 5 Feb 1996 01:08:25 -0700


Subject: The skinny on PROVE, thanks to my colleague Carl Berkhout

From: UACCIT::CTB "Carl Berkhout" 4-FEB-1996 20:20



Subj: RE: To prove your interest

Yep. Interest so proved.

On "I think the exceptions only prove but do not destroy the rule": in

the original French of this maxim, PROUVER [= to test], the maxim is

true; when the English PROVE is substituted in the translation, it is

obviously false. When we're done with the repetitions of words frozen

in form as the result of a rhyme or the use in a proverbial saying,

maybe we can discuss counterfactual generalizations such as this which

are repeated time and again as if they meant something.


David Bergdahl

Ohio University/Athens

Actually, the usage is historically quite correct and is confirmed in

Latin legal documents. (The operative French term for "test" would be

"e'prouver," not "prouver.) The people on alt.usage.english were

arguing about this last spring. Here's the archival summary:

The common misconception about "The exception proves the rule"

(which you will find in several books, including the _Dictionary

of Misinformation_) is that "proves" means "tests". That is *not*

the case, although "proof" *does* mean "test" in such phrases as

"proving ground", "proof spirit", "proofreader", and "The proof of

the pudding is in the eating."

As MEU says, "the original legal sense" of the "the exception

proves the rule" is as follows: "'Special leave is given for men to

be out of barracks tonight till 11.0 p.m.'; 'The exception proves

the rule' means that this special leave implies a rule requiring

men, except when an exception is made, to be in earlier. The value

of this in interpreting statutes is plain."

MEU2 adds: "'A rule is not proved by exceptions unless the

exceptions themselves lead one to infer a rule' (Lord Atkin). The

formula in full is _exceptio probat regulam in casibus non

exceptis_." [That's Latin for "The exception proves the rule in

cases not excepted."]

The phrase seems to date from the 17th century. (Anthony Cree,

in _Cree's Dictionary of Latin Quotations_ (Newbury, 1978) says

that the phrase comes from classical Latin, which it defines as

Latin spoken before A.D. 400; but no classical citations have

come to our attention.) Below are the five seventeenth-century

citations we could find. 1, 3, and 4 are in the OED; 2 is in

_Latin for Lawyers_ by E. Hilton Jackson and Herbert Broom; 5 is

in _A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and

Seventeenth Centuries_, by Morris Palmer Tilley.

1. 1617 Samuel Collins, _Epphata to F.T.; or, the Defence of the

Bishop of Elie concerning his answer to Cardinall Ballarmine's

Apologie_ 100: "Indefinites are equivalent to universalls

especially where one exception being made, it is plaine that all

others are thereby cut off, according to the rule Exceptio

figit regulam in non exceptis." [Note that "figit" rather than

"probat" is here used. "Probo" can mean any of "give official

approval to", "put to the test", or "demonstrate the verity of";

but "figo" can only mean "fix", "fasten", or "establish".]

2. _The reports of Sir Edvvard Coke, Kt., late Lord Chief-Justice

of England_ (1658 edition; Sir Edward Coke died in 1634): "[...]

upon which Award of the Exigent, his Administrators brought a

Writ of Error; and it was adjudged, That the Writ of Error did

lie, and the reason was, Because that by the Awarding of the

Exigent, his Goods and Chattels were forfeited, and of such

Awards which tend _ad tale grave damnum_ of the party, a Writ of

Error lieth, although the Principal Judgment was never given; in

this case, _Exceptio probat regulum_, & _sic de similibus_."

["A writ of error lieth" = "an appeal is admissible"; "exigent"

= writ of suspension of civil rights; _ad tale grave damnum_ =

"to such great loss"; _sic de similibus_ = "thus about similar


3. 1640 Gilbert Watts, _Bacon's Advancement and proficience of

learning_ VIII. iii. Aph. 17: "As exception strengthens the

force of a Law in Cases not excepted, so enumeration weakens it

in Cases not enumerated." [So when Lewis Carroll wrote "I am

fond of children (except boys)", he affirmed his fondness for

girls more strongly than he would have had he written merely "I

am fond of children."]

4. 1664 John Wilson, _The Cheats_, To Reader: "For if I have shown

the odd practices of two vain persons pretending to be what they

are not, I think I have sufficiently justified the brave man

even by this reason, that the exception proves the rule." [The

OED (but not the other books I checked) gives the date as 1662.

As far as I can tell from this scant context, Wilson seems to be

saying, "My description of two cowardly cheats should serve to

show you the bad consequences of not being brave, and hence

convince you of the need for a rule: 'Be brave!'."]

5. 1666 Giovanni Torriano, _Piazza universale di proverbi italiani,

or A Common Place of Italian Proverbs_ I, p. 80 "The exception

gives Authority to the Rule." note 28, p. 242 "And the Latin

says again, Exceptio probat Regulam."

To convince us that *in this particular phrase* "proves" originally

meant "tests", you will have to cite any quotations as old as or

older than these to support your view.

Here's another, from the Michigan Early Mod Texts, though it's



For, if any man would be exquisite therein, and speake rightly

according to the rules thereof, it is necessarie hee should turne ouer

the most part of Grammaticall Commentaries, that he may the better

make election which of them were fittest to bee followed; though he

confesseth, that it would be a perpetuall and an vnprofitable labour,

to gather all rules, to examine all places of Authours, and out of

all these to put all occurent exceptions vnto rules;

webbe, j., truth, 16-17