An idiom that has its cake and eats it

Posted by on September 30, 2013

© CorbisIn a recent post defending the expression I could care less, I wrote that idioms do not hinge on logic, and expecting them to make literal sense is futile. But it can be hard to ward off the instinctive wish that language align better with common sense.

Another example of this is have your cake and eat it (too), defined in Macmillan Dictionary as: “to have all the benefits of a situation when, in fact, having one thing means that you cannot have the other”. That is, the two things are irreconcilable – you can’t have it both ways. Note that while having cake often means eating it (“I had too much cake”), in this phrase it means to possess or hold onto, hence the impossibility of both having and eating the figurative cake.

The idiom crumbles under examination. Even as a child I was dissatisfied with it. I knew I’d often both had cake (in my possession) and eaten it, though typically only with a very short interval between the two phases. The expression supposedly referred to two mutually incompatible things, yet I attained both – and asked for more.

Part of the trouble is the order of events. The phrase makes more sense when recast as eat your cake and have it too, since this is more self-evidently impossible. Indeed, it’s how the phrase was first constructed. The later sequence of having your cake and eating it arose in the mid-18th century, and appears to have overtaken the original in the early 20th. The deposed version is now so rare that its use sticks out like a sore thumb, as Tom Freeman notes.

Having one’s cake and eating it recalls the fable of a miser who buried his gold in the garden to enjoy the satisfaction of owning it. But the parallel breaks down partly because gold keeps, whereas cake goes stale after a few days. You can make a case for saving money, but with cake it’s more a question of who’s left licking crumbs off the plate. In other words, why would anyone want to hold onto cake?

Ben Zimmer argues that the idiom makes some sense if the conjunction and on which it pivots implies simultaneous rather than sequential actions. On radio recently he said that if you want a logical explanation of the phrase, interpreting and this way “allows you to pin this newer version onto a kind of a rationale”. His host, by his own admission “way too literal”, politely declines, perhaps feeling that having one’s cake and eating it just takes the biscuit.

Comments (15)
  • Ah Stan, would you stop…I’m all confused now. Do I want to have my cake and eat it or eat my cake and have it or forgo cake entirely and just have a biscuit instead? I think I’ll give them all up and resign myself to fruit. I could (or couldn’t ?) care less

    Posted by Helen on 30th September, 2013
  • Helen: I think if anyone concludes from this post that they should stick to fruit, that’s a better result than I could have hoped for. As for the idiom, use it whichever way you like; it’s going to puzzle people no matter what.

    Posted by Stan on 30th September, 2013
  • Stan:
    I never had a problem with the idiom. As a child, I was often admonished that “you CAN’T have your cake and eat it too” (although I railed against the unfairness of it all).

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 1st October, 2013
  • 1. “I could care less.”

    In UK English the expression is “I couldn’t care less”, which makes more sense.

    2. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”
    There is an older version of this expression that I have come across in UK literature: “You can’t have your cake and ha’penny” (a ha’penny being a half penny).
    l

    Posted by Julie Dixon on 1st October, 2013
  • Marc: Yes, it’s usually said in the negative, to draw attention to the impossibility. When it comes to cake, though, that just doesn’t seem fair (or entirely logical).

    Posted by Stan on 1st October, 2013
  • someone else (as a kid) had the same thought as i had, as a kid. my feeling was if i were to have cake, of course i would eat it. wot dumbheads.
    that was then when i was too much the literalist and not yet aware of the treachery of adults. after all these years and decades i can deal with metaphors, similes, analogies and am extremely treacherous.

    Posted by mac on 1st October, 2013
  • “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” is a proverb guys.

    Posted by David Huttner on 2nd October, 2013
  • Is having your cake and eating it too one of those pie in the sky notions? I think we’d all be happier in the here and now if we acknowledged that cake is a waste of a dessert space — pie is where it’s at. ;-)

    Posted by Dawn Stahl on 2nd October, 2013
  • Julie: Yes. As I said in the post about could care less, this version of the phrase is “usually informal and American”.
    “You can’t have your cake and ha’penny” is an interesting variation, and one I haven’t heard before. It makes more sense, I think.

    Mac: Some metaphors can be hard to get one’s head around as a child. I suspect this one caused a fair bit of confusion.

    David: The entry in Ronald Ridout and Clifford Witting’s book English Proverbs Explained mentions a few similar ones, such as: “You cannot burn the candle at both ends”; “You cannot sell the cow and drink the milk.”

    Dawn: I’m going to spin a new expression for the occasion: You can enjoy the pie without condemning the cake. I’m fond of buns and tart, myself.

    Posted by Stan on 2nd October, 2013
  • If one wants to dig up some proverbs, she/he might find they are self-contradictory & do not seem logic.
    Regarding the cake, to my thinking it might belong to conceptual metaphor, i.e one can’t expect to consume something & save it meanwhile. What I understand this sentence is: if you eat up the cake, you are unlikely to possess/save it at hand.
    An oriental proverb has almost the same meaning as mentioned above: you can not have the bear paw & the fish at the same time. Actually it does not make any sense to many people, because these two are definitely likely to be owned by a person. Due to the fact that it’s a metaphor indicating the unlikelihood of possessing something at the same time, there is no need to split hairs on purpose over the subtle content.

    Posted by Teo/Juan on 19th November, 2013
  • Teo/Juan: “one can’t expect to consume something & save it meanwhile”
    Yes, that’s how I’ve always interpreted it too. And you’re right: proverbs, or sets of proverbs, sometimes are contradictory, and there are many examples in different languages analogous to having/eating cake. My intention is not to deride the paradox, but to examine it.

    Posted by Stan on 20th November, 2013
  • This idiom didn’t mean much to me as a child either: we couldn’t afford cake. Other food-related idioms also puzzled me (a very literal-minded child), like “Too many cooks spoil the broth”. I didn’t mind how many cooks there were, so long as there weren’t enough to eat up all the ‘broth’ themselves, spoiled or otherwise. I had no idea which side my bread was buttered on, though I could detect a scraping of margarine. And why did people bother to repeat the self-evident fact that “Half a loaf is better than no bread” as if it were a pearl of wisdom?

    Posted by gill francis on 20th November, 2013
  • Gill: It used to bother me that “Too many cooks spoil the broth” and “Many hands make light work” so glaringly contradicted each other. But there is, if not a truth, then a truism for every occasion. I was never quite sure why it mattered what side my bread was buttered either, so long as it wasn’t the side that fell face down (and who could predict that!?).

    Posted by Stan on 20th November, 2013
  • My Grandma always said ” You can’t have your cake and ha’penny”

    Posted by Ron Hall on 26th January, 2014
  • I like that version, Ron. Though it makes me wish cakes were still available for a ha’penny — and that ha’pennies themselves were still available.

    Posted by Stan on 27th January, 2014
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