In 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.Email this Post