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Take the biscuit

Q From John Czeiner in Salzburg: Does the phrase take the biscuit have something to do with winning a prize? It seems strange since it seems to mean that something is ‘worse than expected’.

A Does it perhaps feel to you as though a person has had their biscuit taken away from them? No, take here has the sense of acquire, in the same way that one might take a trick in a game of cards.

Take the biscuit could once mean winning or excelling. In 1882, George Peck, whom the blurb to one of his books called “America’s favourite humorist”, used it in his Peck’s Sunshine: “Any good play writer can take the cue from this article and give the country a play that will take the biscuit.” But these days, it’s an exclamation to suggest that somebody has done something unprincipled that would win them a prize in a contest of unethicalness. An early example that shows how this sense developed was in the Fort Wayne Daily Gazette of Indiana in November 1880. There seemed to be a quarrel going on between the editor of the Gazette and a rival paper: “For pure cussedness, the new and exceedingly fresh young person [at] the Sentinel takes the biscuit.”

You might think any expression containing biscuit ought to be British, as we use it as the standard term for those sweet items of food that Americans call cookies. Americans have biscuits, too, of course, though they mean something different by them. But the examples I’ve quoted show that take the biscuit was originally American.

It appears to be a variation on take the cake or on take the cakes, a couple of older Americanisms. It’s sometimes said that this refers to the strutting dance called the cakewalk, but the first known examples of that word — for a contest in graceful walking among blacks in the Southern states that had a cake as a prize — appears some 30 years after take the cake. Take the cake may be a classical reference: the ancient Greeks awarded cakes as prizes to the imbiber in a drinking contest who lasted the longest.

Confusingly, another sense of take the biscuit is known principally in Canada. It means something that’s worn out or tired or of no further use. It derives from a disparaging reference to the Roman Catholic sacrament formally called extreme unction, part of which is holy communion. If you take the wafer — contemptuously the biscuit — you are nearing the end of your life.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 4 Oct. 2008

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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.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 4 October 2008.