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If you have cake, shouldn't you also get to eat it?

Is there really any wrong way to eat cake? It's doubtful.

We’re happy to eat it covered in chocolate frosting, or layered with custard and berries, or even upside down with pineapple slices.

That’s why it’s a little confusing when someone tells us, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

If you have cake, eating it seems like a reasonable expectation. Frankly, we’re troubled at the thought of letting a perfectly good piece of cake going to waste.

It’s important to point out that this phrase is an idiom, and idioms aren’t meant to be parsed out word by word. That’s why we generally accept “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” to mean that you can’t have something both ways, sometimes you have to make a sacrifice.

To better understand the confusing wording of this saying, we need to go back.

Like a lot of other things in our language, this idiom has gone through some changes since its first appearance which is cited as 1546.

Back then, it went, “You can’t eat your cake and have it too.”

Reversing the verbs adds some clarity. It makes sense that if you eat your cake, you’ll no longer have it.

The expression seems to have flipped around sometime in the 18th century, with the latter version taking over as most common in the middle of the 20th century.

Not everyone got that memo.

Ted Kaczynski, otherwise known as the "Unabomber", learned the older version of the expression from his mother and used it in his manifesto. This quirk helped lead to his identification and capture.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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