Meaning of Quote
May 2, 2009 10:28 AM   Subscribe

What is the meaning of the Benjamin Franklin quote: "The proof of gold is fire; the proof of woman, gold; the proof of man, a woman."
posted by GhislainTwo to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Gold has a known melting point. You can tell something is gold by adding fire to it and noting at what temperature it melts. If something is not gold, it will not melt at the appropriate temperature. According to Benjamin Franklin, in a similar fashion you can try the nature of a woman by adding gold. And the nature of a man by adding a woman.
posted by carsonb at 10:35 AM on May 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

The meaning depends on the usage of the word 'proof' to mean test. You can find the actual weight/worth of a gold product by heating it in the fire to melt of impurities. Therefore, to test gold to see what it's made out of, you use fire. Conceivably you can see what a woman is really made out of by observing what happens to her when she is around gold. By the same 18th century logic, the real test of a man is what happens to him when he's around a woman. By using the previous item to become the new tester of the next set, Franklin is apparently being clever, or profound, or something.
posted by allen.spaulding at 10:35 AM on May 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

According to this guy, it seems it is about his reliance on women. Gold relies on fire to be pure. Women, he says, need gold, but men need women. It seems.
posted by Lucubrator at 10:39 AM on May 2, 2009

At the very base level, I would read this quote as "(bad) women succumb to greed, (bad) men succumb to lust."
posted by SassHat at 12:11 PM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

allen.spaulding has it. Read 'proof' as 'test'.
posted by monkeymadness at 12:49 PM on May 2, 2009

the impurities of gold come out when put in fire.
the impurities of women come out when given gold.
the impurities of men come out when given women.

so basically what SassHat said.
posted by cmchap at 12:50 PM on May 2, 2009

Seconding that allen.spaulding's got it.
posted by desuetude at 1:03 PM on May 2, 2009

Both SassHat and Allen.Spaulding have it.

By testing the one (gold, woman, man) with the other (fire, gold, woman), you determine whether the item is good or bad. How the gold reacts to the fire reveals whether it is true gold or not; how a woman reacts to gold (or wealth, really) reveals whether she is good hearted or a gold digger; how a man reacts to or treats a woman reveals what sort of man he is.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 1:08 PM on May 2, 2009

Occasionally, because the sense of the word has changed, fossil expressions are misleading. Consider the off-quoted statement "the exception proves the rule." Most people take this to mean that the exception confirms the rule, though when you ask them to explain the logic in that statement, they usually cannot. After all, how can an exception prove a rule? It can't. The answer is that an earlier meaning of prove was to test (a meaning preserved in proving ground) and with that meaning the statement suddenly becomes sensible- the exception tests the rule. A similar missapprehension is often attached to the statement "the proof of the pudding is in the eating."
The Mother Tongue, by Bill Bryson, p. 80
posted by djb at 1:52 PM on May 2, 2009 [5 favorites]

Consider the off-quoted statement "the exception proves the rule." Most people take this to mean that the exception confirms the rule, though when you ask them to explain the logic in that statement, they usually cannot. After all, how can an exception prove a rule? It can't.

This explanation is wrong. Prove means test in the Benjamin Franklin quote, but not in "the exception proves the rule." See Wikipedia:

The phrase is derived from the medieval Latin legal principle exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis ("the exception confirms the rule in cases not excepted"), a concept first proposed by Cicero in his defense of Lucius Cornelius Balbus.[1] In other words, the fact that an exception is stated serves to establish the existence of a rule that applies to cases not covered by the exception. Fowler's Modern English Usage gives the following example:

"Special leave is given for men to be out of barracks tonight till 11.00 p.m."; "The exception proves the rule" means that this special leave implies a rule requiring men, except when an exception is made, to be in earlier. The value of this in interpreting statutes is plain.

Similarly, a sign that says "parking prohibited on Sundays" (the exception) "proves" that parking is allowed on the other six days of the week (the rule).
posted by martinrebas at 5:07 PM on May 2, 2009 [10 favorites]

As an aside, the sense of "proof" in this sentence is related to the concept of "proof" for alcoholic beverages.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:49 PM on May 2, 2009

Building on what other people have said, the definition of "proof" as "an unimpeachable chain of logic", in the sense of a mathematical proof is a very modern one. For example if you look at this 1782 translation of Euclid's Elements it doesn't use the term at all; instead it calls what we would refer to as proofs "demonstrations".

Here's a sort of "spectrum" of words that I think had meanings much closer to each other and to the word "proof" in the past:
  • assay (A chemical test, originally from chemically testing metals, as in a gold assay to determine its purity. On preview, hi Johnny, speak of the devil.)
  • essay
  • to try (essayer in French)
  • trial
  • to testify
  • testament
  • test

posted by XMLicious at 8:13 PM on May 2, 2009

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