by Mark L. Levinson
The other day, I was translating some Hebrew that referred to something as “worth about as much as a garlic peel.” It’s a common expression in Hebrew, but I’ve never heard it in English. Still, I thought, it’s self-explanatory and expressions do pass from one language into another all the time. There’d be a problem only if the context demanded an everyday expression and would be disrupted by a bonus of picturesqueness.
Karen Gold wrote in about another expression that I think is fairly self-explanatory in English. In Hebrew it’s מבחן המציאות mivkhan hametzi’ut, or in literal translation “the test of reality.”
The Rav Milim dictionary, Karen notes, explains in Hebrew that a plan, a forecast, a theory, an idea, or whatever has “withstood the test of reality” if it has “proven true, suitable, or feasible under conditions existing in reality.”
Karen quotes the Babylon dictionary, which she says “seems to have improved its handling of expressions,” as calling mivkhan hametzi’ut “the test of time” but remarks that she’s “not sure if the inclusion of a time element is justified.” I’m not sure either, to put it equally mildly. If you have a theory that an owl in a tree will attack upon seeing a poster of Mickey Mouse, that theory will fail the test of reality before the clock ticks twice.
Google finds plenty of hits for “test of reality” in English: But what does Google know? Maybe too much. In page after page of search results, I see “test of reality” in English coming from Israeli sources, and those that aren’t Israeli tend not to be from deep in the English-speaking world. Is that because the expression tends to pop up only in English that is either somebody’s second language or a translation? Or is it merely because Google knows I’m in Israel and thinks Israeli sources are what interest me?
Is “the test of reality” a parochial phrase that hasn’t penetrated far into the English-language mainstream? And if it is, does that mean it shouldn’t be used? Or, like the garlic peel, is it readily understood and eligible for adoption?
Here’s a source that appears respectable. In Risk and Financial Management: Mathematical and Computational Methods, Charles S. Tapiero writes: “All great theories are based on simple philosophical concepts, that in some circumstances may not withstand the test of reality.” Tapiero is a Distinguished Professor of Financial Engineering and Technology Management at the New York University. But where does he come from? Is his Tapiero family Sephardic Jewish? How fanatically Anglocentric do we want to be about our sources?
At this point, I eagerly invite comments, in the space at the bottom of the page, from those who would like to comment on “the test of reality” as used, or not used, by native speakers of English.
One problem Google turns up is a second meaning of “the test of reality.” Besides the meaning that Rav Milim assigns to the phrase in Hebrew, a “test of reality” can also be a way of determining whether something is real or not. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan remarks: “If persistence or permanence is supposed to be the test of reality, we find it is only the whole that is real, for only that is unchanging while the finite changes.”
Suppose you want an alternative phrase saying that something was subjected to the test of actual conditions. A couple of familiar terms for a definitive test are “the acid test” (“a severe or crucial test,” says Merriam-Webster on line) and “the litmus test” (“a test in which a single factor ... is decisive”).
The original acid test was a test to tell whether gold is real. I have the impression that because acid is dangerous, people today tend to think of the acid test as what you would use if milder methods haven’t produced a definitive answer.
The literal litmus test is a way of telling whether a solution is acid or alkaline, so the term is used figuratively for tests of an either/or situation.
Another phrase often used in English is “the cold light of reality.” A cliché, really. I don’t think good writers use it. But is a pre-packaged phrase necessary at all? I think that if, for example, your theory of owl psychology fails the test of reality, you can simply say that it doesn’t actually work, that it proved inadequate, that it failed in the real world, or simply that it isn’t realistic. But I imagine there may be contexts that are trickier to phrase.
If we can say “acid test” and “litmus test,” how about “reality test”? It sounds a little flippant, but it turns up in a couple of reasonable respectable news headlines: “On Campus, Legal Drinking Age is Flunking the Reality Test” (The Washington Post reports that everyone knows underage kids drink anyway) and “A fairytale romance that failed the reality test" (The Times reports on Kate Middleton’s break-up with Prince William back in 2007).
As always, comments on the current month's phrase are welcome in the space below. If you’d like to suggest a different word or phrase for discussion, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org An index of words and phrases discussed so far is here.