The tyranny of cake and cliché

This might be considered a rant in the vein of David Mitchell, and his comments on phrases such as “I could care less”* on his last YouTube video series.

I happened to be watching a documentary where somebody said, “I think you’re just trying to have your cake and eat it.”

And the thought occurs, as it did to George Carlin: What the hell else am I supposed to do with cake that I have? Is cake intended to be purely ornamental now?

If the phrase ran “You just want to have your cake, and everybody else’s as well”, whilst be less snappy off the tongue, it would at least make a bit of sense. But when you think about it, the phrase doesn’t make sense. If you have cake, and you didn’t eat it (unless you’re on a diet), wouldn’t it be foolish not to eat it?

It’s just one of those peculiar phrases that pop into the language and we use without thinking. I discussed this on Twitter and somebody remarked that “Cheap at half the price” is also rather disingenuous a phrase.

If something is cheap, it would be cheaper at half the price, but if the point is to discuss the value of the product compared to price, you’d be better off saying that it would be cheap at double the price.

These phrases are so often repeated we don’t really think to question them out of context. I’ve always found traveling to other countries that when people speak English to me, and run into one of these little clichés, they’re more likely to notice when they don’t make any sense.

Eating cake you have is apparently a terrible thing, if the cliché is to be believed. I had a brief search for the origins of the phrase, to see where it came from, and it apparently is supposed to mean that a person is trying have the best of both worlds.

Early uses switched the terms, which in modern parlance would be “you want to eat your cake and have it”, alluding to the impossibility of having cake you’ve already eaten. That’s reasonable enough, but as often happens over time, the phrase has become reversed and lost meaning in the process.

I prefer the related French term, myself, which makes more immediate sense: “vouloir le beurre et l’argent du beurre”, to want to have butter and the money for the butter at the same time. It conveys greed, or the desire to want to have things both ways at once.


*We say “I couldn’t care less” in Britain, which does make sense. If you could care less, you obviously care. I’ve never understood why people say “I could care less about…”

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4 Responses to The tyranny of cake and cliché

  1. easylifestyles says:

    I love poetry and I really enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for sharing this post. Feel free to stop by sometime.

    Raining Purple Rain

  2. Nick says:

    As you say, it’s about still having cake you’ve already eaten, so there is some sense behind it. But you pretty much have to go and look it up to find out what it’s on about. So it could be a bit clearer…

    I always took “cheap at half the price” to be tongue-in-cheek. It’s deliberately wrong: implying perhaps an over-eager salesman who gets it muddled up.

    But, yeah, people saying stuff without thinking what it means is the root cause behind these annoyances, isn’t it?

  3. *We say “I couldn’t care less” in Britain, which does make sense. If you could care less, you obviously care. I’ve never understood why people say “I could care less about…”

    That. Drives. Me. Insane.

  4. Joely says:

    I know! I always want to say “Really? You could? Well, I couldn’t…”

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