September 6, 2006

The exception that proves the rule

A reader writes:

I once watched a group of five or six "public intellectuals" here in Britain discussing this phrase on television. None of them came close to getting it right, but they were all full of pompous explanations of the errors of thought which had led our despised ancestors to come up with such an obviously erroneous "cliché".

I put it this way: an "exception" is only recognized as such when there is a general norm which it violates and thus "proves" in the sense of highlighting. No exception is recognized where there is no rule or norm. It is not "2+2=4" which is the sort of rule which is violated and thus recognized, but the sort of "rule" expressed by "Germans haven't much of a sense of humor", a rule which is hardly likely even to be formulated except in the sudden presence of the violating exception.

Similarly, you might not notice that Japanese people are generally not raging egomaniacs until you notice that Yoko Ono is an exception. By the way, according to David Letterman, one of the Top Ten Duties of the Emperor of Japan is "Make sure Yoko Ono's U.S. citizenship is kept up to date."


toobrightlights said...

Nope. Legal maxim. See Cicero's defense of Bilbo.

If an exception to a rule under law is stated, there implicitly can be no others. Therefor the exception proves or demonstrates that the rule (law) is absolute, by defining its entire boundary.

Anonymous said...

This is an exception TO the rule, however.

Anthony said...

toobrightlights isn't quite correct.

The phrase means that "when there's an exception, there's a rule". If there's a sign reading "no right turn on red", that means that generally, right turn on red is allowed.

M. Tullius Cicero said...

See Cicero's defense of Bilbo.

You idiot, Cicero isn't in Tolkien. Presumably you mean the speech Pro Balbo. Just as a word of advice, people who aren't idiots convert Latin names into the nominative case when using them in English.

Verbum sapienti, stultissime. (That's Latin for "just sayiin', nimrod".)

Steven said...

"Germans haven't much of a sense of humor" is false. I'm not German by the way. I've just known Germans and been to Germany and I've encountered a good, quirky, dry sense of humour quite often. I don't know why this myth is so popular. One hears that stereotypes are usually based on truth but I don't think this one is. Not now anyway.

Jupiter said...

Prove is used in the sense of "test". This is an old usage, still found in "proving ground". Compare the Spanish, probar, to try or test.