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You'd laugh to see a pudding crawl is a catch-phrase aimed at someone who is easily amused or is suffering a fit of uncontrollable hilarity. Does anyone know how this phrase came into being?

I'm not even sure what is meant by a pudding crawl; I presume it means the act of the last part of your meal propelling itself about the table, but perhaps there is another meaning that would make the saying clearer?

Searching the internet revealed that the question has been asked before (here), and the meaning explained (here and here) but the etymology has never been explained.

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  • I've never heard it before. I'd assume its ironic.
    – Ed Guiness
    Commented Nov 29, 2011 at 12:02
  • 1
    I was tempted to provide the only answer I can see, "because one is British". :) Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 21:00

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Matt's idea that the phrase might have a different meaning in each saying seems probable to me.

I've been slightly more successful searching for see a pudding crawl on its own (without the laughing part). And it is a lot more frequent with creep than crawl.

There's a peak in the early 19th century for see a pudding creep because it was used in an essay by Jonathan Swift :

it would vex a dog to see a pudding creep

where it could be understood as "see a pudding go to waste".

The oldest quote I have found is in a 1617 nonsense anonymous verse :

I grant that Rainbowes being lull'd asleep,
Snort like a woodknife in a Lady's eyes;
Which makes her grieve to see a pudding creep,
For Creeping puddings only please the wise.

Here again it's the idea of waste. So how did it become associated with laughter? (A hint of sadism maybe?)

The phrase seems to be British (rather than US), here's an excerpt to what seems to me to be a pastiche from the TV series Star Treck:

"You would laugh to see a pudding crawl..." Spock read aloud, an eyebrow almost rocketing off his face. "...a fascinating image."

Kirk gave him a weird look. "I never thought I'd say this, but that's one of the only phrases I haven't heard Bones say."

"That is hardly surprising, Jim, as it originates in Britain."

It can found in a cockney dictionary and a 2005 excerpt from a web blog:

But then, us Londoners, as my dad used to say, would laugh to see a pudding crawl.

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  • Laugh of the day. What a collection of humoriora :) P.S. blog is an short form of "web log". Sorry, couldn't help myself. Why is "one of the only" so funny? :) Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 21:02
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How far back does 'pudding creep' go?

James Howell, Paroimiographia: Proverbs, or, Old Sayed Sawes & Adages (1659) includes the following expression as a proverb under the heading "Topicall and Temporall Proverbs Relating to particular Places, Seasons, and Persons put together":

It would vex a Dogg to see a pudding creep.

Unfortunately, Howell doesn't explain what made this saying a topical or temporal proverb. In any event, as Laure's answer notes, the expression, also appears (somewhat later) in Dialogue II of Jonathan Swift, A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, According to the Most Polite Mode and Method Now Used at Court, and in the Best Companies of England in Three Dialogues (1738):

Col[onel Atwit]. I have a Mind to eat a Piece of that Sturgeon ; but fer it will make me sick.

[Mr.] Neverout. A rare Soldier indeed! Let it alone, and I warrant it won't hurt you.

Col[onel Atwit]. Well; but it would vex a Dog to see a Pudden creep.

The sense here seems to be that a dog would be vexed if a pudding within its reach should escape uneaten, although much depends on what creeping means in the context of a pudding. In any event, Colonel Atwit hasn't pulled the expression out of his periwig—it's clearly an established proverb that he is invoking to suit the occasion of a sturgeon that lies available for the chawing.

But John Ray, A Collection of English Proverbs (1678) simply places "It would vex a dog to see a pudding creep" in a group of "Joculatory, Nugatory and Rustick Proverbs."

Noel Malcolm, The Origins of English Nonsense (1997) [combined snippets] notes an instance of the proverb from circa 1629, as cited in Morris Tilley, Dictionary of Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1950), and explores a possible link between the proverb and the Tom Thumb story:

Tilley records he proverbial saying 'It would vex a dog to see a pudding creep' (Dictionary of Proverbs, D491); the earliest source noted by him is the 'Excellent New Medley' (poem 36), which he dates to c.1629. Two lines from one of the comic poems prefixed to Coryats Crudities [1611] suggest a possible origin for this puzzling image: Tom Thumbe is dumbe, untill the pudding creepe, / In which he was intomb'd then out doth peepe' [citation omitted]. One popular episode in the story of Tom Thumb involves the hero falling into a mixing-bowl and being made part of a pudding. In the earliest versions of this printed versions of this story which have survived (R. Johnson, History of Tom Thumbe (1621); Tom Thumbe, his Life and Death (1630), the strange movements of the pudding startle Tom Thumb's mother, who, fearing that it is bewitched gives it to a passing tinker. It would appear that in some earlier versions of the story, the movement of the pudding had caused surprise or alarm to a watching dog. We know that other versions of the story were circulating: ...

William Hazlitt, English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases Collected from the Most Authentic Sources (1869) includes the same proverb, but it also contains this expression:

To run as fast as a pudding can creep.

[Robert] Armin's Nest of Ninnies, 1608

Armin is Robert Armin, and his mention of the creeping pudding appears in A Nest of Ninnies: Simply of Themselues Without Compound (1608):

But to goe forward with our challenge, the king said the first word should stand, and on Iemies head he laid a thou∣sand marks: the Lady Carmichell that laught to heare all this wagered as much on the Foote-mans head: the day was appointed the next morning, being Thursday, to begin at fiue a clock in the afternoone in the coole of the evening and euery one to his race must make him ready. Iemy as he had seene the kings Foot-men do, washt his féet with Béere, and soakt them in Butter, so all that night and the next day there was nothing but Iemy and his prouision to that great iourney. The time came, Iemy was stript into his shirt, trust round for the purpose: the footman and hée begins to runne: the Footeman makes shew of great labor, and the Foole made the substance, for he was quickly in a sweat: they puft and they blowde, they ran as swift as a pudding would créepe. Iemy thought himselfe no smal foole to out-run the Foot-man, and did in his minde assure himselfe to win: the King laughes to sée the toyle hée made, and the Foot-man made great shew and little paines.

Armin had published the same content under the title Foole upon Foole, or, Six Sortes of Sottes in 1605.

Philanax, A Murnival of Knaves: Or, Whiggism Plainly Display'd, and, If Not Grown Shameles) Burlesqu't out of Contenance (1683) has this play on the vexed dog proverb:

This Polih-Kinglin since, they say,

Who scarce cou'd creep, is run away,

('Twou'd vex a Dog to lie and peep,

And see a skewer'd Pudding creep)

The quotation attributed by Laure's source to an anonymous source from 1617 is elsewhere ascribed to Nathaniel Lee (familiarly known as "Nat Lee, the crazy poet") who was born in or near 1657 and died in 1691 or 1692 "in a street-brawl during a drunken frolic," according to Samuel Austin Allibone, A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors, volume 1 (1854/1859). Here in greater context are Lee's thoughts on creeping pudding, quoted in George Bromby, Le Melange; Containing Poetic Pieces, Fragments, Dramatic Sketches, Observations, Anecdotes, &c. (1817) refers to them as having been "written by a gentleman in a state of mental aberration":

Oh! that my heart would bleat like butter'd peas!

And, e'en with frequent bleating, catch the itch;

And grow as mangy as the Irish seas,

Engend'ring whirlwinds in a pointer bitch.

Not that a hard-roed herring dare presume

To swing a tithe pig in a cat-skin purse,

'Cause of the great hailstones that fell at Rome,

By lessening the fall, might make it worse!

I grant, that tipsy rainbows, lulled to sleep,

Snore like Welch wigs in a fair lady's eyes;

'Twould make 'em laugh to see a pudding creep,

For creeping puddings only please the wise.

The reason's plain—for Charon's western barge,

Running a tilt at the subjunctive mood,

Beckoned to Bagley wood, and gave the charge

To fatten padlocks with Antarctic food.

An item titled "Anecdotes of Nat. Lee, Esq. the Celebrated Dramatic Poet," in the Augusta [Georgia] Chronicle (April 9, 1817) reproduces a somewhat different version of the verses. George Wentworth, The Poetical Note Book and Epigrammatic Museum (1824): titles the lines (which are very similar to those given in the Augusta Chronicle) "Nathaniel Lee's Rhapsody" and reports that Lee wrote them while "confined in Bedlam, Moorfields." And Graham's Illustrated Magazine (April 1858) specifies that the year of composition was 1684. Unfortunately, I have not been able to confirm these details from earlier sources.

On the Other Hand, from Works of John Taylor, the Water Poet, Not Included in the Folio Volume of 1630 (1877) we have this excerpt from "The Essence, Qunintessence, Insence, Innocence, Lye-sence, & Magnifisence of Nonsence upon Sence: Or, Sence Upon Nonsence," originally printed in 1653:

O that my wings could bleat like butter'd peas,

But bleating and my Lungs have caught the itch,

Which are as musty as the Irish Seas,

Which in their left side now both have the Stich.

I grant indeed, that Rainbows layd to sleep,

Snort like a Woodknife in a Ladies eyes.

Which makes her bark to see a Pudding creep,

For creeping puddings alwayes please the Wise.

This 1653 instance, if accurate, would explode the claim of Nathaniel Lee, who was not yet born in that year. But it is still 40 years later than the claimed 1617 publication date for yet another version of the verses, unde the title "Nonsense," included in Carolyn Wells, A Nonsense Anthology (1902):

Oh that my Lungs could bleat like butter'd Pease;

But bleating of my lungs hath Caught the itch,

And are as mangy as the Irish Seas

That offer wary windmills to the Rich.

I grant that Rainbowes being lull'd asleep,

Snort like a woodknife in a Lady's eyes;

Which makes her grieve to see a pudding creep,

For Creeping puddings only please the wise.

There appears to be a fair amount of bowdlerizing going on in these variants, especially with regard to the fourth line, where "Stich" and "Rich" appear strategically in place of bitch in numerous printed versions. P.J. Keegan, The Penguin Book of English Verse (2004) attributes the poem to "John Taylor and Anonymous" but doesn't offer a publication date. Keegan's version gives us "That doth ingender windmills on a Bitch" in the fourth line and "Which maks her grieve to see a pudding creep" in the eighth.


What does 'creep' mean in connection with pudding?

John Jamieson, An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, volume 1 (1808) has this entry for "to creep in":

To CREEP IN, v. n. To shrink, to be contracted. Cruppen in, shrivelled, S[cotland].

Arguably, the formation of a skin on a pudding surface may be connected to creep in this sense. That, at any rate, is what Alexander Theroux, Einstein's Beets (2017) seems to think:

"It will vex a dog to see a pudding creep" goes a well-known apothegm, meaning that even a common cur would be revolted in seeing skin form on the top of a pudding. These are deep threats. It is sheer nightmare to ingest—to have to ingest—any vile, impersonating foods that in our hearts for no matter what reason we have denominated alien.

And this extract from Lear's, volume 3 (1990) [combined snippets] suggests something similar:

Comfort foods. The whole idea is subjective, as various and unpredictable as the tastes that define them. What constitutes comfort and why? Smells, needless to say, matter. And color, of course (brown seems basic), which is related to texture. (Isn't the pudding-creep skin of spinach outrageous to youngsters? The color of beets? The nap of lima beans?)

This also seems the only plausible sense of creep in Philanax's usage in 1683, where the pudding is explicitly "skewerd" and therefore cannot be creeping away on little pudding feet, but must be shrinking back (presumably along the surface).

A book of epigrams titled Recreation for Ingenious Head-peeces, or, A Pleasant Grove for Their Wits to Walk In (1650) involves another pudding whose movement is by way of exposure rather than flight:

Of all the Toms that ever yet were nam'd,

Was Never Tom like Tom Coriat fam'd.

Tom Thumb is dumb, untill the pudding creep,

In which he was intomb'd, then out doth peep.

This epigram is the same one mentioned in Coryat's Crudities (1611/1776), mentioned earlier in this answer, and Noel Malcolm suggests that the the movements of Tom Thumb under the skin of the pudding "caused surprise or alarm to a watching dog." Perhaps so, but alarm and vexation are not especially close synonyms. It seems at least as likely that a dog might find it vexatious to watch a skin slowly congeal on a desirable article of food—sort of like watching paint dry if paint were delicious.

Reviewing the main strands of pudding creep in the seventeenth century, we have these milestones:

1607[?]: "grieve to see a pudding creep" (Anonymous, cited in Wells [1902])

1608: "ran as swift as a pudding would créepe" (Armin, A Nest of Ninnies)

1611: "Tom Thumbe is dumbe, untill the pudding creepe" (Coryate, Coryat's Crudities)

~1629: "It would vex a dog to see a pudding creep" ("Excellent New Medley")

All four of these first occurrences are within 22 years of each other, if we accept the 1607 date for the nonsense poem; but even if we don't, the "grieve to see a pudding creep" is still attested in 1653, just 24 years after the first reported instance of the vexed dog proverb. Two of the phrases involve watching a pudding creep, one involves running as fast as a pudding creeps, and one involves the pudding creeping to reveal Tom Thumb. One clearly involves a dog, two tangentially do, and one does not. Two allude to creeping as a slow process, one is neutral on that point, and one jokingly associates creeping with swiftness.

From the evidence available, it is difficult to conclude with any confidence that one expression was responsible for launching the other three.


What about 'laugh to see a pudding crawl'?

We've seen that one of the variants of the "grieve to see a pudding crawl" nonsense verse was "'Twould make 'em laugh to see a pudding creep," from an 1817 source. That, I believe is the oldest version of that expression.

The much newer expression "laugh to see a pudding crawl" seems likely to have emerged as a variant of the creep expression among people who misunderstood what "pudding creep" referred to, and so swapped out creep in favor of crawl even though "pudding crawl" had no colloquial or proverbial meaning already in place to support the usage.

The earliest instance I've found of "laugh to see a pudding crawl" in the contemporary sense of the phrase is from Thomas Joy, Mostly Joy: A Bookman's Story (1971) [combined snippets]:

Mother had many amusing sayings: for example, 'It is like giving a donkey strawberries,' when something was wasted on someone, or, 'It runs in families like wooden legs,' when remarking on the peculiarities of someone. Sometimes these sayings were outstandingly ridiculous, as when of someone a bit simple, she would say, 'They would laugh to see a pudding crawl!'; sometimes profound as when an ungracious person behaved in an ill-bred way and she would say, 'What can one expect from a pig but a grunt?'

Joy was born in 1904, so his mother may have been using the phrase in its modern form as far back as the late 1800s. However, there are few matches for the phrase from before the 1990s. One later instance is from Sybil Marshall, A Pride of Tigers: A Fen Family and Its Fortunes (1995):

'There's some folks,' she once said tartly. 'There's some folks as I know that 'ould laugh to see a pudden crawl.'

Eric Partridge & Paul Beale, A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, American and British, from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day (1992) has this entry for "what would shock me would make a pudding crawl," a somewhat similar-sounding expression that carries a very different meaning:

what would shock me would make a pudding crawl. It takes an awful lot to shock me: predominantly feminine: c. 1880– 1920. Men were supposed to be unshockable, anyway' (L.A., 1971).

The only Google Books match for this sense of the phrase is from Sarah Smith, The Vanished Child (1992) [combined snippets]:

"Curiosity merely startles the cat. Go on."

"Quite sure? After ten years writing blood, what shocks me would make a pudding crawl. Well, then, I shall be my usual caustic self and let the chips fall where they may. Here is what happened to the Knights."

Nigel Rees, A Word in Your Shell-like (2004) has this entry for "laugh to see a pudding crawl":

(you'd laugh to see a) pudding crawl 'My mother-in-law would say this to children who were having a fit of the giggles for no reason'—Mira Little, Somerset (1999). 'Said when someone laughs at something silly or for no apparent reason'—by the grandmother of the wife of Arthur Haseler, London N22 (2000).

This is clearly the same sense of the phrase that Thomas Joy attributes to his mother sometime in the first half of the 1900s. The usage almost certainly emerged out of the earlier expressions involving watching a pudding creep, but the jump from tipsy rainbows laughing to see a pudding creep (because they aren't wise enough to see the virtue of such creep) to silly people laughing to see a pudding crawl (because they are easily amused) is quite large.

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  • This is fascinating, thank you. Did you also look into what was meant by "pudding" in the earliest instances? A creeping sausage might have somewhat different causes and implications than a creeping custard, I would think.
    – 1006a
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 10:29
  • @1006a: Unfortunately, the earliest dictionary entries for pudding (from 1707 and 1708) in the sense of food identify it only as "a well known Dish"—although there was sufficient differentiation in puddings by the 1650s to justify the inclusion of entries for botargo ("a kind of Sawsage or Pudding made of the eggs and blood of the Sea Mullet, mixed with salt"), hamkin ("A pudding made upon a shoulder of mutton, all the flesh being first taken off"), sawsidge ("A pudding made of Capon-guts, Pork and Spice, &c."), and silicerne ("A pudding eaten only at funerals"). That pudding ...
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 19:47
  • ...encompassed a wide range of foods is evident from Thomas Blount’s Glossographia Or a Dictionary: Interpreting All Such Hard Words (1656), which defines saucidge as “a kind of pudding, well known” and then details the ingredients that go into “Bolonia Saucidge.” As the title of Blount’s book indicates, the problem with early dictionaries is that they were not much interested in words (like pudding) that everyone knew and used freely already.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 19:48
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I've not heard the expression before.

Seeing a pudding crawl must be an unremarkable event, since if you laugh at a pudding crawl, then you'll laugh at anything.

My initial reaction was that crawl is being used in the sense of one's skin crawling, so puddings like blancmange, trifle, jelly, flan, etc., are easy to make their surfaces look like they are crawling - similarly with rice pudding or custard.

However, I have found (at phrase finder) the phrase "what would shock me would make a pudding crawl", which means:

It takes an awful lot to shock me: predominantly feminine: c. 1880-1920

Which would imply that it is difficult to make a pudding crawl.

It is possible that the pudding crawl has a different meaning in each saying, or that, in the sense of being unshockable, it is being used sarcastically or ironically.

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    Mmmm.... Blancmange.
    – user11550
    Commented Nov 29, 2011 at 15:27

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