Eat/Have, Have/Eat Your Cake!

April 14, 2011 by Toni Perry
Filed under: Language 

I recently attended a birthday celebration where one of the mothers told her teenage daughter, “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too.” Another mother chimed in, “No, that’s not right. The saying goes, “You can’t HAVE your cake and eat it, too.”

I’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 correct—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 “Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?”

The Yale Book of Quotations, written by Fred Shapiro, lists a quote from John Davies in 1611: “A man cannot eat his cake and haue it stil.”

In Jonathan Swift’s 1738 farce, “Polite Conversation”, one of his characters (Lady Answerall) states: “She cannot eat her cake and have her cake.” After Swift’s passing, “Polite Conversation” was adapted by Timothy Fribble under the title “Tittle Tattle” in 1749 and the two verbs got flipped, resulting in “She cannot have her cake and eat her cake.” This ordering, with the “having” preceding the “eating,” became the standard over the 19th and 20th centuries.

Breaking down the phrase for its meaning, the key can be found in the conjunction—and.

The traditional “eat/have” ordering is the most reasonable when the conjunction “and” joins the verb phrases to imply a chronological sequence of events — you can’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? Both—You can eat/have, have/eat your cake!

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