Eat/Have, Have/Eat Your Cake!
I recently attended a birthday celebration where one of the mothers told her teenage daughter, â€œYou canâ€™t eat your cake and have it, too.â€ Another mother chimed in, â€œNo, thatâ€™s not right. The saying goes, â€œYou canâ€™t HAVE your cake and eat it, too.â€
Iâ€™ve always found that phrase puzzling. The overall point is that sometimes you have to make a choice between two options, but where in the world of language did this proverb come from and which is correctâ€”eat/have or have/eat?
Thus began my quest. . .
The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs quotes a 1546 collection of works by John Heywood which lists â€œWolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?â€
The Yale Book of Quotations, written by Fred Shapiro, lists a quote from John Davies in 1611: â€œA man cannot eat his cake and haue it stil.â€
In Jonathan Swiftâ€™s 1738 farce, â€œPolite Conversationâ€, one of his characters (Lady Answerall) states: â€œShe cannot eat her cake and have her cake.â€ After Swiftâ€™s passing, â€œPolite Conversationâ€ was adapted by Timothy Fribble under the title â€œTittle Tattleâ€ in 1749 and the two verbs got flipped, resulting in â€œShe cannot have her cake and eat her cake.â€ This ordering, with the â€œhavingâ€ preceding the â€œeating,â€ became the standard over the 19th and 20th centuries.
Breaking down the phrase for its meaning, the key can be found in the conjunctionâ€”and.
The traditional â€œeat/haveâ€ ordering is the most reasonable when the conjunction â€œandâ€ joins the verb phrases to imply a chronological sequence of events â€” you canâ€™t eat cake and then still expect to maintain possession over it. Even when the verbs are switched, it still suggests that the two activities of having and eating cake cannot occur at the same time.
So which mother gets to boast she was correct? Bothâ€”You can eat/have, have/eat your cake!