Test-gunpowder-pudding driven development

I was rereading chapter 3, Systems and Illusion in Jerry Weinberg's excellent An Introduction to General Systems Thinking yesterday. On page 56-57 Jerry writes:

If I say: "The exception proves the rule" in front of a large class, there will be a division in understanding... Some will believe I have uttered nonsense, while others will understand "The exception puts the rule to the test"

I've read the book four times. I'm a slow learner but this time something clicked and I immediately understood the earlier passage:

...the exception does not prove the rule, it teaches it.

Jerry goes on:

"Proof" in its original sense was "a test applied to substances to determine if they are of satisfactory quality."

I was struck by two thoughts when I read this. One was the parallel with testing. Of a test as a proof. The other was the word original. I realized that when I hear the word "proof" I have a strong association with its noun meaning rather than its verb meaning. I tend to think of a proof as a finished proof that completely proves something. It's the noun-verb thing I've blogged about before. I wondered if there were any old dictionaries online so I could get a feel for how the generally accepted meaning of the word proof might have changed over time. There is. http://machaut.uchicago.edu/websters has two Webster's dictionaries. The 1828 dictionary came back with:

Proof [noun] 1. Trial; essay; experiment; any effort, process or operation that ascertains truth or fact. Thus the quality of spirit is ascertained by proof; the strength of gun-powder, ...

The 1913 one came back with:

Proof [noun] 1. Any effort, process, or operation designed to establish or discover a fact or truth; an act of testing; a test; a trial.

and a modern dictionary http://www.thefreedictionary.com/proof said:

Proof [noun]. 1. The evidence or argument that compels the mind to accept an assertion as true.

I find the difference fascinating. The 1828 and the 1913 definitions define the noun as the process whereas the modern one defines the noun as the evidence resulting from the process.

Jerry continues:

We retain this meaning in the "proofs" of printing and photography, in the "proof" of whiskey, and in "the proof of the pudding." Over the centuries, the meaning of the word "prove" began to shift, eliminating the negative possibilities to take on an additional sense: "To establish, to demonstrate, or to show truth or genuineness."

At first I didn't understand the bit about "eliminating the negative possibilities". I think it's partly to do with my ITA spelling at school. But I am persistant. Slowly it came to me. The word that did it for me in...

"Proof" in its original sense was "a test applied to substances to determine if they are of satisfactory quality."

...was the word if. To determine if they are of satisfactory quality. The proof was an act. There was the possibility of failure.

I started thinking about the word proof a bit more. I googled the phrase "the proof of the pudding". If you think this phrase is pretty meaningless then you're right - it's a shortened version of:

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Again it's about the possibility of failure. It reminds me of the scene in the film The Cat in the Hat (another film Patrick and I love watching) where the Cat has just made some cupcakes (with the amazing kupcake-inator). He tries one and says:

"Yeuch. They're horrible. Who want's some?"

I love that line. I also googled the word proof as related to alcohol content. The history behind the phrase is just wonderful. In the 18th century spirits were graded with gunpowder. Imagine you're buying some spirits. How would you know if an unscrupulous merchant had watered it down? You couldn't tell just by looking. What they did was pour a sample of the solution onto a pinch of gunpowder. If the wet gunpowder could still be ignited then the solution had proved itself. Don't you just love that?

So let's hear it for pudding and for spirits and for gunpowder and for tests. And for the possibility of failure.