March 24, 2017
This should be a piece of cake.
As my birthday nears, I thought I would look at a phrase that pertained to cakes. (I had decided on using this saying a few months back when I looked at “Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too.”)
Now, as I discovered, the phrase is connected to a few others (like “take the cake/bun/biscuit” or “easy as pie”), but is more closely connected to “cakewalk.” The two of these sayings have the same meaning, but the origin of “cakewalk” kind of had an unexpected history.
But before I get to the history of these phrases, I would first like to look at the meaning.
What Does the Phrase ‘A Piece of Cake’ Mean?
It’s pretty straightforward.
If something is very easy to do, someone might say it’s “a piece of cake.” You might remember classmates saying that about a few homework assignments or tests, or you may have said that yourself.
How Did an Easy Task Come to Be Called “A Piece of Cake?”
Over at Know Your Phrase, the writer of the post dedicated to the phrase surmises that eating a cake is easy “because it tastes good.” That is, of course, in contrast to the time, energy, and knowledge it takes to bake the cake. However, the connection to why the phrase came to be is only speculation.
At The Phrase Finder forums, a user named ESC digs into the archives and quotes The Dictionary of Cliches by James Rogers (published by Ballantine Books; New York, 1985). It is guessed that the phrase arose because, “The thought surely derives from the fact that for the most people easting a piece of cake is easy and a pleasure.”
(It should be noted that the post was made in 2005.)
Ultimately, the real answer could be found in the history of the cakewalk. But I came across that only after finding an early usage of “a piece of cake.”
Who First Used ‘A Piece of Cake’?
According the Know Your Phrase post, American poet Ogden Nash presented the first appearance in print, in his 1935 book, Primrose Path.*
Her picture’s in the papers now,
And life’s a piece of cake.
Of course, the phrase had to have existed long before. And as stated in the Poetry Foundation page dedicated to Nash, he used clichés which were not created by him; he preferred it that way.
*The post says the book was published in 1936, but the Poetry Foundation and an old article I accessed via UNZ.org put the year at 1935. This was verified by sites that sold the book.
So, How Did This Famous Saying Come About?
Well, as I looked for more sources that cited Primrose Path, I came across a student page by Zoe Klein. On Zöe Klein’s website, there is a page for “Origin of a Cliche [SIC]” based on an assignment for one of her classes. Here, she takes on the saying, “piece of cake” and states that the origin of the phrase really came from the 1870’s (but this has to be off due to the following information).
Klein noted that during the time of slavery, slaves participated in contests judged by slave owners. Slaves “would circle around a cake at a gathering. The most ‘graceful’ pair would win the cake in the middle.” This is thus how the terms “cakewalk” and “piece of cake” originated.
How Were the First Cakewalks Conducted?
I digged some more and followed the links provided by Klein. But I had to delve deeper on those websites. The Phrase Finder was cited and so was Businessballs.
On the latter, I looked at the page dedicated to terms starting with the letter “C.” Cakewalks were described as thus:
From the tradition of giving cakes as prizes in rural competitions, and probably of US origin. Brewer (1870) tells of the tradition in USA slavery states when slaves or free descendents [SIC] would walk in a procession in pairs around a cake at a social gathering or party, the most graceful pair being awarded the cake as a prize.
But I was unsatisfied with that result.
My digging eventually took me to an article written by Lakshmi Ghandhi at NPR. In the article, the origin of the cakewalk was explained. Cakewalks develop as a pre-Civil War ritual that involved slaves. They were held in ballrooms on plantation grounds and slave owners would act as judges in the contests.
The contests would take place as couples danced around an elaborated decorated cake. Unlike modern-day cakewalk, these contests (originally called “prize walks”) called for the participants form a square instead of a circle. The men would be in the innermost perimeter.
I also followed two links provided in the article.
On Page 32 of The Musical: A Look at the American Musical Theater, Richard Kislan said the couples danced “as if in mimicry of the white man’s attitudes and manners. Dance steps included “a high-leg prance with a backward tilt of the head, shoulders, and upper torso.”
(Ghandhi posits that the slave masters might not have known that the slaves were mocking them.)
On Page 83 of James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the author describes a “cake-walk.” According to Johnson, the couples were judged by how stately the men looked, how graceful the women were, and how well the couples turned the corner. The winner was decided by a process of elimination. Every so often, the music was stopped and the weakest couple was taken out of competition will the others remained until there was a winner.
“A Piece of Cake.” Know Your Phrase. Web. Retrieved 24 Mar 2017. Web. <http://www.knowyourphrase.com/phrase-meanings/Piece-Of-Cake.html>.
ESC. “Piece of Cake.” The Phrase Finder. 25 Apr 2005. Web. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/41/messages/235.html>.
“free expressions meaning, words, phrases origins and derivations.” Businessballs. Web. Retrieved 24 Mar 2017. <http://www.businessballs.com/clichesorigins.htm#C-meanings>.
Ghandhi, Lakshmi. “The Extraordinary Story Of Why A ‘Cakewalk’ Wasn’t Always Easy.” NPR. 23 Dec 2013. Web. Retrieved 24 Mar 2017. Web. <http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/12/23/256566647/the-extraordinary-story-of-why-a-cakewalk-wasnt-always-easy>.
Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Sherman, French & Company. Boston; 1912. Print. Page 83.
Kislan, Richard. The Musical: A Look at the American Musical Theater. 1995. Print. Page 32.
Klein, Zöe. “Origin of a Cliche.” Zöe Klein’s Website. Drexel University. Web. Retrieved 24 Mar 2017. Web. <http://www.pages.drexel.edu/~zk32/clicheorigin.html>.
Martin, Gary “Piece of cake.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 24 Mar 2017. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/piece-of-cake.html>.
“Ogden Nash.” Poetry Foundation. Web. Retrieved 24 Mar 2017. Web. <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/ogden-nash#poet>.
“‘See Through the Cracks’ by Ted Robinson, The Saturday Review, Saturday, February 16th, 1935.” UNZ.org. Web. Retrieved 24 Mar 2017. <http://www.unz.org/Pub/SaturdayRev-1935feb16-00487a02>.