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Have your cake and eat it

Q From Colin Rogers and Alison Braid-Skolski: We are perplexed by the confusing phrase have your cake and eat it. I have always thought this a common misconception and it should be eat your cake and have it?

A Whoever expected English idioms to be logical? The usual way in which one sees this one is as the negative you can’t have your cake and eat it, expressing the idea that you have to make an either/or choice, that you can’t reconcile two mutually incompatible situations. It would be a little clearer if it were written as you can’t both have your cake and eat it. It would be more obviously the same as the other form if you also rewrote that as you can’t eat your cake and still have it.

Quite why the saying has settled on this form isn’t clear. I learned it as a youth as you can’t eat your cake and have it, too, and there are more examples in my databases that way than in the can’t have your cake and eat it inversion. Those who first used it certainly agreed with your sense of logic. Though presumably rather older, it is first written down in John Heywood’s A Dialogue Conteynyng Prouerbes and Epigrammes of 1562: “Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?”. John Keats quoted it as eat your cake and have it at the beginning of his poem On Fame in 1816; Franklin D Roosevelt borrowed it in that form for his State of the Union Address in 1940; a search of nineteenth-century literature shows it to be about twice as common as the other. But a quick Google search shows the have your cake and eat it form is now about ten times as frequent, and all my dictionaries of idioms and proverbs cite it that way.

One of life’s little mysteries, I suppose. But whichever way you say it, you can be sure that it will be understood. So there’s no need to worry much over the logic!

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 22 Jun. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 22 June 2002.