Interesting Idiom Investigation: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”
Home » Interesting Idiom Investigation: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”
– Or: Backwards logic in our idiom language is bonkers and super fun
Idiom. No, that is not what you call yourself when you drop a hammer on your big toe because you were carrying too many things and you knew you were carrying too many things. There’s no shame in admitting you were wrong about that. You also earned that funny walk you did for about a week.
Oh wait, back to idioms. They are fascinating linguistic things that we say – we are focusing on English in this case – that oftentimes have absolutely nothing to do with the subject at hand but are still viable in usage. Proverbial figures of speech. They mean something completely different out of the context but still effectively describe a thing or scenario without actually needing to reference the thing or scenario.
Confused yet? Me too. And I just wrote the blasted paragraph.
English is positively littered with these landmines and sometimes we say them without knowing what they mean. Sometimes we use them completely wrong and everyone smiles and nods because they use them wrong too. I would like to periodically pick one to dive into and explore because it’s my blog and I get to do that. Hopefully – HOPEFULLY – you’ll enjoy the ride along as much as I enjoy blathering on about it.
Idiom #01 – “You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It Too”
I can still vividly remember the first time I heard this phrase. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. My immediate mental reaction was “Uhh, yes you can. I have this cake. Figuratively. See? I’m holding figurative plate with the figurative cake in my figurative hands. Now I’m going to figuratively eat the cake, figuratively digest it, and probably get a figurative tummy ache because you served me too much figurative cake and I have no figurative or literal will power. THIS IS ON YOU, JASON. But anyway, I had the cake and then I ate it. The end. Roll credits.”
The internal dialogue is complicated this morning.
It never made sense to me. You had the cake, then you ate the cake. I get that you’re trying to tell me I can’t have both scenarios in question but I very seriously (elevated levels of serious!) had both of the things. Which I would never say out loud because I don’t want to be obtuse or too dad-jokey or some kind of language snob or excessively picking of nits.
Of course, now you can call me all those things because I’m actually saying it. Reciprocity is great! Tastes like chicken.
So anyway, the phrase made absolutely no sense to me. In the time of less internet and more Britannica, finding out this information was a bit more complicated. Once the internet of things exploded as a searchable database (sorry, Britannica. we loved your really bone dry commercials. i mean come on. home improvement manual commercials were more interesting than what you put out there. “Read the book!”), it became easier to get to the bottom of things.
So let’s get to the bottom of this one.
(hahahaah that’s another one! “get to the bottom of it.” that wasn’t even on my list. it’s on my list now! WOOHOO! is this what they call meta?)
First documented use of this idiom
The first documented English use of this idiom that we are currently aware of was from one Thomas to another. In 1538, the Duke of Norfolk (whose name was Thomas) wrote a letter to Thomas Cromwell (have you ever had cromwell cheese? holy cats it’s addictive) which contained the phrase “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Right there in italicized black and white. It might have even been italicized way back then because of fancy flowery script writing with inkwell calligraphy pens and everything. The phrase has other similar usages in other languages and if this was included in a letter in 1538 then chances are it was already in use prior to being put to paper. Or parchment. Or uhh, scroll? Little tiny scroll tied with a string and attached to a courier raven?
The intent of the use of this idiom
So to set aside my flaring level of obtuseness, the meaning of the idiom is summed up as “You cannot have both things. You must choose. Either one or the other, but not both.” It is not meant to illustrate the events in question or a nullification of the sequence of those events. You get to choose. One or the other. You cannot have the best of both worlds in the scenario that has been outlined.
Examples of this idiomatic proverb in use: “You cannot claim to be a civil activist on one day and then be on the take for a politician the next.” “You cannot smash this guitar at the end of your encore and expect to be able to play it when unexpectedly called up to play a second encore. Also, don’t smash your guitar you performative entitled moron. Some kid could have used that to learn to play better than you.” “You can either spare your stomach a world of unmitigated hurt or you can ingest that Mountain Dew in your hand. Not both. Choose carefully.”
Why I think it’s backwards and how to fissit
Back to the idea of picking ALL the nits. ALL OF THEM. The concept makes sense but I feel personally that it is being said backwards. For it to make sense, again in my extremely prideful opinion, the actions need to be reversed.
“You can’t eat your cake and have it to.” Or “You can’t eat your cake and also hold it in your hands (on a plate. seriously. be moar civilized).” Something to that effect. The implication makes more sense in my bizarre way of thinking. In order to illustrate the notion of not being able to have the best of both worlds, the action of consuming the good thing must take place prior to the activity of still possessing the good thing. If you eat the cake, you cannot retain possession of the cake.
Conclusionary statement of stuff
This disjointed blog post has been brought to you by the letter Æ.
But seriously, I’ve been making a list of a whole bunch of these and am thinking of peppering them in for the sake of being slightly more interesting and not diving into super heavy topicsevery time. What do you think? Send me an email or DM me in all the usual places and let me know if this is something you’re interested in reading more about or if it would be better to move on to more interesting tidbits.
Until next week!
-= george =-
T H E R E !
Are we having fun yet?
About the Author
Straddling the line between the arts - voiceover, music composition, session performer, album mixing - and the world of durable medical equipment. Probably should have spent more time playing on the balance beam as a kid instead of obsessing over Commodore 64 games.
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