Expressions that are either nonsense in the form they are generally used, or actually mean something other than what their users think.

The proof is in the pudding
This is more an example of malapropism than a misunderstanding of its meaning. The phrase, as it stands, is meaningless. It is intended to convey a situation where some action is proposed (or has already been taken) whose beneficial results are in doubt. It purports to say that when the results are in fact known, only then will it be possible to make the judgement as to how beneficial the action turned out to be. However it does not actually say that, or at least it says it very obscurely. The correct version of the saying is “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” which does exactly convey the intended meaning quite clearly.

You cannot have your cake and eat it
This form of the saying is a factual misstatement. You can indeed have your cake and eat it; in fact you cannot eat it without first having it. The having, however, must precede the eating. What you cannot do, and what is the correct statement, is that you cannot eat your cake and have it too. The key to this understanding is the sequential nature of the eating and having.

You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs
This is of course at least partly true in its literal sense; since omelette are made from eggs, and the shells are not used in the omelette, in order to make the omelette one must indeed first break the eggs. However when one examines the situation more closely, one finds that it is only the shell that is broken, as it must be since it is not edible (or, rather it is not palatable since one can in fact eat egg shells without harm.) I suppose one could argue that the yolk is also broken when it is mixed with the white, but but in any case use of the expression is fraught with moral implications. It is most often used to justify the bad effects on some people of policies that benefit others. It implies that in any situation some must suffer so that others may gain. The use of the word “can’t” implies that this is an inevitability, and that it justifies the harm done since the omelette is seen as being of greater value than the unbroken eggs. Again, closer examination reveals a darker side. One is led to speculate on the role that the eggs play in the omelette. The eggs are not broken merely as a side effect of making the omelette, they are incorporated into and form the main ingredient in it. So when a politician dismisses the ill effects of his actions on certain people of actions he proposes (or has actually taken) by trotting out this statement, one might ask just who or what are the eggs, what is the omelette, who is making it and who is eating it? What we will generally find is that this casual dismissal is in fact a handy way to avoid having to actually balance benefits against costs, or examine who receives the benefits and who pays the costs.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me
This one is not so much misunderstood or wrongly used, it is the exact opposite of the truth. We often recover completely from even quite serious physical injury, and we have a very poor memory for physical pain. Try to imagine the pain of a toothache when you are not suffering from one. You can recall being in pain, and the fact that it was a very unpleasant experience, but you cannot experience the actual pain in your memory. Physical pain is not accessible to the mind. Emotional pain, the kind that is often delivered in the form of words, on the other hand, is instantly and vividly accessible to the memory. We remember emotional hurts that we suffered as small children often until the day we die.

Bad apples
The subject of police brutality has been very much in the news of late, and there has been much debate between two competing points of view: those who claim that police forces throughout the country are institutionally corrupt, and should be completely rethought from top to bottom; and those who claim that the problem is confined to a few “bad apples” and the system in general is fine. This phrase, “bad apples” has become so prevalent on this side of the debate that one of the late night shows put together a lengthy presentation of people using it. What the users do not seem to realize is that they are in fact arguing against their own case, and it is frustrating to me that their opponents do not seem to realize this, since it offers them a powerful rejoinder. Their response should be “I am happy to hear you describe them as bad apples, since we all know that, as the complete expression makes clear, one bad apple will spoil the entire barrel. Institutional corruption, even though at first it might be confined to a few, will over time corrupt the entire institution, and that is why we favor completely rethinking our approach to policing.”

Slippery slopes
Proposals for some kind of improvement in social conditions by righting some wrong that is being suffered by a segment of society are often met with the argument that the proposal constitutes a slippery slope. Allowing gay people to marry others of the same gender opens up the door to people marrying their dogs or horses or siblings. Once we start down that path who knows where it will end? What these people do not seem to realize is that, like the bad apple people, they are in fact arguing against their own case. The phrase describes this kind of argument as the slippery slope fallacy, one of a number of kinds of argument that are logically fallacious. Logicians point out that all public policy making involves making distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and that all such distinctions must fall somewhere on a scale between two extremes. In the given case, it is precisely the job of government to determine who should or should not be allowed to marry. If the slippery slope argument were in fact a valid objection, simply allowing men to marry women would already start us down that slope! Saying that something is a slippery slope argument is saying that it is a false and unpersuasive argument, so those who object by describing a proposed policy as a slippery slope are in fact undermining their own case.

This word, when applied to socio-political views, is generally used to mean extreme. This is not its true meaning. Radical comes fro the Latin work radix, meaning root. A radical idea, though often extreme in the eyes of the world, is one that attacks the very root of the matter. this is by no means the case with most extreme views, which should not therefore be considered radical.

It takes money to make money
First of all, the very concept of “making money” is misleading. What is usually meant by this phrase is actually accumulating money. Leaving this aside, though, the phrase is still not a true statement. What it takes to start a potentially profitable business is resources. Usually the largest and most pressing of these resources is a location to operate the business, which means paying rent, for which you need money. This is also the case for most of the other resources (tools, raw materials, labor etc) that you will need. In the world we live in, these are normally only obtainable in exchange for money. It is important to note, however, that this is not an absolute requirement. The resources themselves are the absolute requirement, but it is not hard to imagine a system under which new businesses are provided directly with the necessary resources without money being involved.

Money does not buy happiness
This is commonly trotted out as a way to make those who lack money feel better about their situation. The truth is, though, that money does indeed buy happiness (or at least removes a major cause of unhappiness). However this only works up to a certain point. If someone has so little that they are unable to afford even the most basic necessities, then giving them enough money to meet those expenses does indeed materially affect their potential for happiness. This continues even above the level of necessity to some balance point that is different for different people where the happiness potential for new goods or services is outweighed by the burdens of dealing with more possessions. More money above this point does not buy more happiness, and at some level the effect is often reversed, and more money for someone in this situation makes them less and less happy. It has often been observed that the very wealthy are seldom content with their lives, whereas often the poor are much happier moment to moment. Since everyone seems to know at least one rich person who is in fact happy, it should be noted that this rule is not absolute, but large scale studies have shown it to be generally true.

Begging the question
This is often used to mean something like “suggests the question.” It does not. Begging the question is a technical term used in logic, and it describes a particular form of logical fallacy, or an invalid form of argument. It means attempting to prove a proposition by assuming the point that you are trying to prove. If I tried to prove the existence of God by saying that he must exist or he could not have written the Bible, that would be begging the question.

The exception that proves the rule
I have often had this experience in the midst of a discussion about socio-political matters: I will respond to some statement of principle with an example of circumstances in which it does not hold true, to be met with the response “Oh, that’s just the exception that proves the rule.” Taken in the meaning that is indicated by the context in which it is used it is complete nonsense. How could an exception prove a rule? This would be to say that a contrary argument strengthens a proposition! If this were true, presumably a further objection would strengthen it further, while a complete lack of objections would invalidate it, clearly the exact opposite of the truth. Some have tried to evade this problem by explaining that “prove” originally meant “test,” so the expression is really saying that the exception tests the rule. This is not the actual meaning, but even if it were, it is not worth saying. It is simply saying “your objection challenges my proposition.” It adds nothing whatever to the exchange, and clearly this is not in fact the sense in which it is offered. It is trotted out instead of an actual response to the objection. So what does the expression actually mean? As it turns out, the “prove” has its usual meaning. It is a legal principle that says that if you declare an exception, this implies (or proves) that there must have been a rule to which the exception applies, even if the rule is not explicitly stated. If I put up a sign saying “No Parking on Thursdays,” this implies that parking is permitted on all other days, the rule that is proven by the exception.

Government of the people by the people for the people
We often hear complaints that we now have government of, by and for the corporations, or the wealthy or some other such. I understand what is intended by these constructions, which is probably the important thing, but nonetheless they do not actually make sense. The confusion here concerns the word “of”, which can have one of several meanings. It often indicates possession, as in the rights of Man, where the rights belong to Man. This is not, however, the meaning here. If it were, the “by” part would be redundant. In this case the meaning of “of” is like the phrase “the driver has control of the car.” In other words, “government of the people” means government over the people, which becomes obvious when we consider it apart from the rest of the expression. The “by” indicates who is doing the governing, and again if we simply consider “government of the people by the people” this becomes obvious. The confusion arises when we add the last phrase “for the people”, which indicates whose interests are served. This would have been avoided if Lincoln had said “government over the people by the people on behalf of the people” but that would have lacked the poetic flow of what he actually said. So if we are to be strictly correct, we would have to say that we now have government of the people by the corporations for the wealthy, or something like that.