Famous Sayings: #24 — ‘Have Your Cake…’

August 21, 2016

You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

have your cake, and eat it too, cake, proverb, famous sayings

I had another saying ready to go before I was reminded of this one. Thanks usfman for this and your consistent feedback on this blog.

Now, I will admit, while being familiar with this proverb, I was a bit confused with the phrasing. To me, “have” can be the same as “eat,” so the phrase, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too” was a bit redundant and thus contradictory.

But is there another interpretation? And is this the original arrangement of verbal clauses.

First, we have to try to find the origin of this phrase. Here is what I found during my investigation.

Who First Coined the Phrase ‘Have Your Cake..,’?

It’s unclear who first uttered the phrase, although the usage of a proverb with cake could be traced back to the 16th century. Even then, the basic idea of the phrase could be traced back to Plautus in 194 B.C. From Bartleby:

The idea that if you spend a thing you cannot have it goes back much further than Heywood’s original 1546 work. Plautus wrote c. 194 B.C. in Trinummus (act II, scene iv, line 414), “Non tibi illud apparere si sumas potest” (if you spend a thing you cannot have it), translated as “You cannot eat your cake and have it too” by one Englishman.—Comedies of Plautus, trans. Bonnell Thornton, 2d ed., rev., vol. 2, p. 29 (1769).

A 2011 article by Ben Zimmerman credits John Heywood with the first known usage of the phrase in 1549.

However, newer sources contradict this information.  Matt Blitz credits Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk for the earliest known use of the phrase. In 1538, the Duke wrote a letter to Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister to King Henry VIII. The letter can be found on the British History Online archive:

The great sickness continues here, and I am banished by it from my two “starting holes,” Castellacre and Bongaye. I require you to send me, by this bearer, my will, which ye have sealed in a box. I must alter things therein, for my substance in money and plate is not so good now by 2,000l., “a man can not have his cake and eat his cake.”

Next, Blitz cites A Dialogue Conteynyng Prouerbes and Epigrammes (1562) of containing the idiom in question, although the verbal phrases are reversed. Much of this is correct by others sources may be correct in citing the year as 1546.

Now, here is where I cite Wikipedia. It is a good referencing point and it lead me to this title: A dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Proueres in the Englishe Tongue. From there, I searched online and found an archive set up by the University of Michigan, which cited the year of publication as 1546.

The line in question:

Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?

From there, numerous usages of the proverb could be found in works. This includes the Jonathan Swift farce Polite Conversation. In it, Lady Answerall says, “She cannot eat her cake and have her cake.” That worked was adapted stolen in what would be “Timothy Fibble’s” Tittle Tattle; or, Taste A-la-Mode:

And she cannot have her Cake and eat her Cake.

Finally, Wikipedia also led me to R.C. Knopf’s Document Transcriptions of War of 1812 for the first modern-day usage of the adage. It took some doing to find the text, but I found it via a PDF created by the University of Michigan. From Document Transcriptions of War of 1812 (Volume VI, page 204):

As for what has been done in the selling and buying of land, it cannot be ondone. To make bargains today and unmake them tomorrow or even to talk about it — belonds to children and not to men. “We cannot have our cake and eat it too.” Nor can any thing be done to restore to life, those who have been killed. We must tke things s they are: not as we would have them.

What Does It Mean?

Well, it can depend on how you arrange the verbal phrases, but there is a general understanding of the meaning. Consider a few examples.

The Cambridge English Dictionary shows two versions.

Here is the British translation:

have you cake and eat it (too)

to have or do two good things at the same time that are impossible to have or do at the same time:

You can’t have your cake and eat it – if you want more local services, you can’t expect to pay less tax.

Here is the American translation:

have you cake and eat it too

to do or get two good things at the same time, esp. things that are not usually possible to have together:

I worked at home so I could raise my family and still earn money – I guess I wanted to have my cake and eat it too.

In short, it is generally understood that “you cannot have it both ways.”

However, the “have/eat” arrangement has led to confusion for the reason I mentioned at the top. But Blitz and Mark-Anthony Lewis make it clear that once a cake is eaten, it is gone, and you can no longer have (i.e., “possess”) it any longer.

Is There a Right Way to Say the Proverb?

Many grammarians will tell you that the “eat/have” arrangement is correct. For instance, Paul Brians explicitly says that the “have/eat” arrangement is wrong, especially because of the confusion. And it looks like he only traces the usage of “eat your cake and have your cake” as far back as Heywood.

Another person who insisted that the “eat/have” arrangement was correct was Theodore John Kaczynski, A.K.A. the Unabomber. For 18 years, Kaczynski eluded authorities. He began sending mail bombs to universities and airlines in 1978; his attacks killed 3 and injured 24 (FBI).

As Blitz points out, it was Kaczynski’s hubris that finally led to his apprehension. In 1995, he sent out his manifesto, which was published by The Washington Post and The New York Times. David Kaczynski, Ted’s brother, recognized the writing choices and the insistance of the “eat/have” arrangement. It was included in reference to a departure from modern-day technology.

David Kaczynski ultimately contacted the FBI, who deployed linguistic forensics. The agency was supplied with more writings of their suspect and it finally made an arrest on April 3, 1996 (History.com).

Works Cited

“1335. John Heywood (1497?-1580). Respectfuly Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations. 1899.” Bartleby.com. Web. Retrieved 21 Aug 2016. <http://www.bartleby.com/73/1335.html>.

Blitz, Matt. “Have Your Cake and Eat It Too.” Today I Found Out. 15 Jan 2014. Web. Retrieved 21 Aug 2016. <http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/01/cake-eat/>.

Brians, Paul. “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Common Errors in English Usage. Web. Retrieved 21 Aug 2016. <http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/eatcake.html>.

“A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue compacte in a matter concernyng two maner of mariages, made and set foorth by Iohn̄ Heywood.” University of Michigan. Web. Retrieved 21 Aug 2016. <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A03168.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext>.

“Document transcriptions of the War of 1812 in the Northwest. Hathi Trust Digital Library.” PDF. Retrieved 21 Aug 2016. <https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015008170063;view=1up;seq=7>.

“FBI 100 – The Unibomber.” The Federal Bureau of Investigations.  The United States. April 24, 2008. Web. Retrieved 21 Aug 2016. <https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/stories/2008/april/unabomber_042408>.

“Henry VIII: March 1538, 11-15” British History Online. Web. Retrieved 21 Au 2016. <http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol13/no1/pp176-192>.

Lewis, Mark-Anthony. “Etymology of ‘Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too.’” Irregardless Magazine. 9 Nov 2013. Web. Retrieved 21 Aug 2016. <http://www.irregardlessmagazine.com/language-and-grammar/etymology-of-have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too/>.

“have your cake and eat it (too) Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” Cambridge English Dictionary. Cambridge University Press. Web. Retrieved 21 Aug 2016. http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too

History.com Staff. “Unabomber Arrested.” History.com. A+E Networks. 2010. Web. Retrieved 21 Aug 2016. <http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/unabomber-arrested>.

Zimmer, Ben. “Have Your Cake and Eat It Too.” The New York Times. 18 Feb 2011. Web. Retrieved 21 Aug 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/20/magazine/20FOB-onlanguage-t.html?_r=0>.


2 thoughts on “Famous Sayings: #24 — ‘Have Your Cake…’

  1. I enjoy reading your research about these idioms. Very interesting that the negativism implied by British interpretation in your present example clashes with the optimism expressed in the American definition.


    1. I enjoy doing these posts and reading your feedback. The challenge is finding the right ones to post on special days.

      Indeed, the American version of the idiom’s definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary is a bit more optimistic. There is a bluntness in the British version. But I think I appreciate both.


Have any thoughts on the subject? Time’s yours.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.