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I recently encountered the little nugget of wisdom that is the subject of this piece in a comment thread on this web site.  I was immediately reminded of how Ambrose Bierce punctured it with a sarcastic stiletto in his “Devil’s Dictionary.”

“EXCEPTION, n. A thing which takes the liberty to differ from other things of its class, as an honest man, a truthful woman, etc. “The exception proves the rule” is an expression constantly upon the lips of the ignorant, who parrot it from one another with never a thought of its absurdity. In the Latin, “_Exceptio probat regulam_” means that the exception tests the rule, puts it to the proof, not confirms it. The malefactor who drew the meaning from this excellent dictum and substituted a contrary one of his own exerted an evil power which appears to be immortal.”

The full statement of the principle reads “exceptio probat regulam, in casibus non exceptis.” Here’s another translation that I found: “The exception proves the rule in cases not excepted. Example: if an appliance store says “pre-paid delivery required for refrigerators,” it is reasonable to assume they do not require pre-paid delivery for other items. The act of stipulating a condition for when something is disallowed (or required), proves that when the stipulated conditions do not hold, it is allowed (or not required).”

Notice that this translation of the Latin phrase does say that “probat” means “prove” rather than “test” as Bierce claims. Which one is correct? Here is one explanation I found:

The confusion over this expression stems from the wrong understanding of “prove,” that “prove” here means “test,” as in “proving ground” or a printer’s proof. The idea is that the exception tests the validity of the rule, and that test could either leave the rule intact (if some kind of explanation can be found) or overturn it. However, it’s hard to come up with an example where that is truly what is intended by the phrase. It almost always carries the assumption that the rule remains intact.

I don’t think most people really give much thought to the meaning of the phrase. They just recite the ancient adage…or aphorism…or whatever it is called, and think they are exhibiting wisdom.

Bierce didn’t have much use for adages and aphorisms.

ADAGE, n. Boned wisdom for weak teeth.

APHORISM, n. Predigested wisdom.

The flabby wine-skin of his brain

Yields to some pathologic strain,

And voids from its unstored abysm

The driblet of an aphorism.

If you are not familiar with the writings of Ambrose Bierce, I urge you to look him up, particularly “The Devil’s Dictionary.” I have found much wisdom and humor/humour there.



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Bert Bigelow is a trained engineer who pursued a career in software design. Now retired, he enjoys writing short essays on many subjects but mainly focuses on politics and religion and the intersection...

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