Friday 23 March 2018

Improved proverbs No. 1: 'You can't both keep your cake and eat it'

This is often not understood; probably because the 'have' in the original ('You can't have your cake and eat it') is ambiguous - since having a cake can mean eating it.

And the proverb is the wrong way round: actually you can (...first...) 'have' your cake and (...then...) eat it - plus the phrase really needs a 'too' or 'as well' at the end.

Thus: 'You can't both keep your cake and eat it'. 


S. F. Griffin said...

And the proverb is the wrong way round

According to Wikipedia:

The order of the clauses in the saying has been the subject of some a letter on 14 March 1538 from Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, to Thomas Cromwell, as "a man can not have his cake and eat his cake"...The phrase occurs with the clauses reversed in John Heywood's 'A dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue" from 1546, as "wolde you bothe eate your cake, and have your cake?"

Some more examples are given and then:

According to the Google Ngram Viewer, the eat-first order was more common until about 1935, since which time the have-first order has become much more popular.

Modern decline in a nutshell.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

From the article linked by SG, John Davies' version: "A man cannot eat his cake and have it still." I think it rolls off the tongue better than yours does.

I think the whole metaphor behind this proverb is ill-chosen. It doesn't represent a meaningful dilemma or tradeoff, since the only thing you can do with a cake, once you have it, is eat it. Some of Wikipedia's examples from other languages seem more to the point, such as the Portuguese: "Wanting the sun to shine on the threshing floor, while it rains on the turnip field." Or the Romanian: "Wanting 'it' in 'it' and the soul in heaven."

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - "he only thing you can do with a cake, once you have it, is eat it" - Yes, I agree, in fact I was discussing this with my son; that it would be better if the example were something like a classic bottle of wine - when there were some benefits from consuming it (to enjoy the taste) or keeping it (as an investment, to increase in value).

Perhaps a more common example is when cigarettes are used as barter currency, as in Germany after WWI. You could 'keep' a cigarette to spend as money, or consume it for pleasure - but not both.

Karl said...

Of the blessings set before you make your choice, and be content. No man can taste the fruits of autumn while he is delighting his scent with the flowers of the spring: no man can, at the same time, fill his cup from the source and from the mouth of the Nile.

That is from Samuel Johnson's Rasselas. Or more popularly:

Between two stools you fall to the ground.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Drinking Nile-water! Not a very appealing image!