Popular sayings that break or reverse the original meaning

Yes it’s one of those threads where we get to feel smug for knowing a thing (until someone here corrects us :wink: )

“The exception that proves the rule”
Popular meaning: ? That sometimes the best example of a rule is something that at first blush appears to break it.
Original meaning: An exception implies a general rule. e.g. If you put up a sign outside your house, saying “No parking 2pm - 5pm”, then implicitly you’re saying that people can park there at other times. This is an important principle in legal contexts.

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”
Popular meaning: We shouldn’t infer anything from the lack of evidence for a claim
Original meaning: There’s a distinction, although with overlap, between “Absence of evidence” and “Evidence of absence”. A particular (lack of) observation can indeed be the latter.

“could care less”

Yes, claims can be made in such a way that this would be the case.

i.e. if the entity I posit exists then we should definitely see evidence of “this nature” under “these circumstances”.

if said evidence is not seen it would be reasonable to take that as evidence that the entity does not exist.

“one bad apple”

Original: corrupts all the other apples

Popular: corrupts no other apples

The original phrase is “couldn’t care less” though, so it’s more a mis-statement of the phrase.

In that format though it doesn’t make sense taken literally. Not if what you want to unambiguously convey is that the thing under discussion is something that is at the very bottom of your “caring about” list.

“Pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” now means to pull oneself out of bad or impoverished circumstances using only one’s own devices, without any help.

But it used to be a sarcastic expression, meaning to try to do the impossible.

“Begging the question” in its original meaning is a fallacy meaning when an argument’s premises assume the truth of the conclusion, instead of supporting it.

Now it typically is used to mean when a statement seems to be leading to an obvious question to be asked – “which begs the question…”


True, but I’m not sure that we need to make such an absolute claim.

Let’s say the claim is that Mexico has no populations of birds living in the wild. And you travel round Mexico for a week and don’t see any. Is that evidence to support the claim?

Yes, it is.
Evidence, not proof.

After all, as more people and more time elapses without seeing birds, the more confidence we’d have in the claim. So that original observation must count for something.
But no-one needs to make the claim that a given person should definitely see a bird at a given time.

Of course, if you do see a bird, it’s the exception that proves the rule.


Sure I did make it absolute in order to show that the absence of such evidence under the terms of that particular strict claim would indeed be strong evidence.

You are right that the claim can be somewhat woolier and the principle still holds, i.e. the absence of evidence under those circumstances would be evidence of absence, just not quite as strong.

All hinges on what the claim actually is. If it is constructed as non-falsifiable then there is nothing we can do with it.

Yes, agreed.

The original quote was A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one and was a complement. We’ve shortened the phrase to turn it into an insult.

Back in the day, saying that something (a sports car, for instance) was high-maintenance meant that you had to invest in it constantly to keep it at peak performance and you ended up with a really great car.

Nowadays, saying that someone (a significant other, for instance) is high-maintenance means that you have to invest constantly to keep that person satisfied and you don’t end up with a really great significant other.

I thought of a couple popular sayings that are quoted in a shortened form that radically changes their original meaning, and not for the better, in my opinion:

“Money is the root of all evil.”

The original is from the King James Version of the bible, 1 Timothy 6:10:

For the love of money is the root of all of evil”

Big difference. Money on its own is not evil, the love of and coveting of it is.

“Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

The original by Ralph Waldo Emerson is:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Sensible consistency is usually a very good thing. You don’t want surgeons, pilots or lawyers just winging it.

But foolishly doing something the same wrong way every time, just because that’s the way it’s always been done, is not good.

Common quote

Which people love to throw out in Libertarian type arguments that the country was founded on Freedom above all else, which is nonsense, and an insult to Franklin.

actual Quote by Ben Franklin

Whatever faults Franklin may have had, he was never an idiot or an absolutist. The formation of the quote shows how he understood, and knows any intelligent reader understood, that Freedom and security are often in a balance. It is a warning to be careful not to push the balance to the extreme favor of security, definitely not that we should push it to the extreme favor of Liberty,

I’m amazed at how many people get that wrong.

It’s also absurd to claim that the love of money is the root of all evil. Rape and serial murder almost never involve money. I might agree that the love of money is the root of much evil.

As @solost noted, the original source is 1 Timothy 6:10. The King James Version does indeed say “the root of all evil,” but many more modern translations say “…a root of all kinds of evil.”

I agree! Fortunately, that’s pretty much the only absurd statement to be found in the KJ bible. :wink:

I think Cecil agrees that the common popular meaning breaks the original meaning:

I don’t see the reversal from positive to negative connotation here that you suggest. The recent usage seems like a straightforward extension of meaning. High maintenance is no more a desirable attribute for a car than it is for a person. Either a car or a person that is high maintenance might be worth the effort involved - but the implication in both cases is probably not.