Except Ask Cool Daddy
Dear Cool Daddy: So what the heck is “That’s the exception that proves the rule” supposed to mean anyway? Wouldn’t an exception DISPROVE a rule, not PROVE it? Could never figure that out. …Plato, Jr., in Plano, TX
Dear Plato Jr.: What it all boils down to is this: the meaning of words changes over time, and so also does the meaning of old “wise sayings.” Like “Waste not, want not.” That never made sense to me, since if you don’t waste it, obviously you’d have it, but then why wouldn’t you want it? What’s the point of having (from not wasting) if you then won’t want it? The answer is that “want” isn’t being used in the more modern sense of “desire to have,” but in the older sense of “lack”…as in “For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost” or “Weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Which is why a “wantwit” is the same as a “lackwit” ha ha. BTW, since there really isn’t anything I need to illustrate, but people seem to like the pictures, I’m going to just throw some in at random, so don’t be confused.
Or remember the story of the House that Jack Built…“This is the dog that worried the cat…” No, the cat wasn’t sitting there eyeing the dog and thinking: “I dunno about him…this could be a problem!” Or a “worrywart”…what’s a wart got to worry about, it just sits there, right? But again, these are older senses of the word “worry”…in the first case, to “harass by biting or snapping at”…then evolving to the 2nd case, “to touch or disturb something repeatedly”…to finally the slightly more abstract sense of “to think about something obsessively.”
So in our case, it’s the word “prove”…it’s not to be taken in the newer sense of “to verify or demonstrate the truth of” but in the older sense of “to test.” “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” means it may look good or smell good, but see what it tastes like! Or if something is said to be fool-, water-, or shock-proof…when tested by fools, water, or shock, it will withstand them. Same thing with a book’s “galley proofs”…or a stamp or coin “proof”…it’s like a test run, a preliminary sample.
Now taken in this sense, “It’s the exception that proves the rule” has alternated over the centuries between 2 basic ideas…altho today, neither is really in force anymore, which we’ll get to. The first idea is this: The rare exception to a rule will tend to confirm it only by its rarity. For example, say the rule is: All crows are black. But every once in a while, you find a white one, an albino. If every 3rd crow you found were black, the rule wouldn’t hold water…but the fact that they’re almost all black, except for the occasionally oddball, reinforces the truth of the rule. Of course, if you never found anything but a black crow, that would also confirm the rule…duh…which leads to the 2nd idea…
Which is this: What seems at first to violate a rule, upon closer inspection will prove to confirm it after all. For example, say a pizza joint guarantees 15-minute delivery. You call, and the pizza never arrives. OK, they broke their rule, right? Nope, turns out you gave them the wrong street address, and they did deliver it within the time limit, but to your confused but appreciative next-door neighbor. And this happens all the time in life…something doesn’t happen the way you expect it would…”there’s something funny going on”…and it turns out that the circumstance are indeed different, you just weren’t aware of it…so the “rule” really wasn’t broken after all. Or in the case of our crows, the white one you find…not black…turns out not to be a crow after all but a different species of bird, see?
And since nothing in life is simple, there’s a 3rd sense, a legal sense…in fact there’s a whole phrase in Latin, I won’t bore you with it, but the gist of this legal principle is: “Where a rule (or law) has stated exceptions, the fact that they are spelled out is intended to mean there are no others.” But really, all I’ve said so far is academic, because unless you are conversing with a very learned person, no one says the phrase with those meanings in mind any more.
Today, “It’s the exception that proves the rule” is most often heard as referring to some specific instance, as “That’s the exception that proves the rule.” And all people mean is: “Well, I guess that rule has an exception because we just found it!” It’s a diluted, “dumbed down” way of using a fine old adage…because they mean nothing more significant than “That rule has an exception.” The use of the word “prove” is a holdover from the older uses of the phrase, and really is the wrong word. So now it’s purely idiomatic, which is why when you think about it, it doesn’t make sense…like you say, exceptions disprove rules…but then that’s what idioms are famous for!
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