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The Etymology of ‘Proofreading’

Here at Proofreading Academy we have a poster on the wall (next to the signed pictures of our favourite pedants of stage and screen) that says, ‘You don’t have to know the etymology of “proofreading” to work here, but it helps!’

Our questionable taste in wall décor aside, the term ‘proofreading’ does make more sense when you consider its history. To do this, we must first look at the word ‘proof’.

Two men operate an old-fashioned printing press

Scientific Proof and the Proof of the Pudding

Most people, when they see the word ‘proof’, will jump straight to the idea of scientific proof. It’s the most common definition, after all. But when taken in the context of proofreading, it has a slightly different meaning.

The word comes from the Latin probare, the same word that gave us ‘probe’. It means ‘to confirm by testing’. From this, we can glean two distinct meanings of ‘prove’:

  1. To confirm something using evidence
  2. To subject something to a test

This second definition is the one we see in such phrases as ‘proving ground’ and ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’ (not ‘the proof is in the pudding’: don’t get us started on that). Nobody is giving evidence for the hypothetical pudding’s existence or its validity as a pudding, though. It is, rather, being tested for quality. Like a document in the hands of an editor, say.

Galley Proofs

Now we are getting closer to the type of proof used in proofreading. If ‘prove’ means ‘to subject something to a test’, we can draw on this to create another definition. A proof, in this sense, is a test version of something.

In publishing, the first test-prints of books were called ‘galley proofs’. The people who read and checked the galley proofs were creatively termed ‘proofreaders’.

Of course, depending on their niche, a modern proofreader might not do this at all. But until the language affords us a more inclusive term, proofreaders we will remain.