Misusing Old Phrases

Of course we all know the exceptions to rules don't "prove" them; exceptions disprove rules! But at the time the phrase was coined, "prove" also meant "test": these exceptions *challenged* the rule!

But did you know "patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels," when coined, meant pretty much the opposite of what we mean when we say it today? Dr. Johnson was complaining, not about those who support everything their government does under the guise of patriotism, but those who were fierce critics of their government, but shielded themselves from charges of disloyalty by saying, "Ah, but I dissent out of patriotism!"


  1. In legal contexts, exceptions often do prove rules. For example, "Customers may not smoke here on Sundays" is evidence of a general rule that customers can smoke there (i.e., smoking is allowed on every day of the week but Sunday). Hence the legal maxim, exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis.

    In statutes, an exception to an ambiguous rule can demonstrate that certain readings aren't viable (as they would make the exception superfluous).

  2. I always thought the "exception that proves the rule" meant that it indicated the existence of a general rule.

    A "No Parking between 3-6PM" indicates that you can park there at the other hours. But that's just my modern interpretation. Any historical examples?

  3. I did not know that.

    Stanley Kubrick's movie Paths of Glory really used that quote out of context, in reference to a commander criticising French soldiers being ordered to "patriotically" conduct a suicide charge against Germans.

  4. Of course we all know the exceptions to rules don't "prove" them; exceptions disprove rules!

    Gene Callahan, Popperian.

    1. Well, I suppose if Popper had invented the idea of falsification, or was the first to point out its importance, then this might make me a Popperian. Here, for instance, is Robert Boyle from the 1600s:

      "a thousand experiments or observations made to confirm a theory do not have the force of one made to prove the contrary"

      The fact that you keep ignoring this, which I am now pointing out for like the fourth time, makes me Boyling mad!

  5. Huff and traumerei, initial research seems to back your take on this phrase. I was told the other explanation by someone who sounded like they knew what they were talking about, and "prove" did have such a meaning once, but Wikipedia supports the legal origin of the phrase.


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