You can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It

I was sitting here this morning, not sure what to write, and thinking I might take a little break for today. You know, go outside and enjoy the drizzle. However, I was listening to the song “Lay Lady Lay,” which contains the line You can have your cake and eat it too. And that got me thinking.

Of course, we all know that the old proverb (aren’t they all old?) states that you can’t have your cake and eat it. We all understand the meaning: you can’t have two incompatible things, and there’s often a negative trade-off to something positive. Those are good lessons to learn, but isn’t there a better way to get the message across?

When I was young, I never liked this expression, as it never seemed to make sense. Of course you can have your cake and eat it too. You have to have it first before you can eat it. But we know that this isn’t what the expression is saying. What it’s specifically saying is that it’s not possible to have a cake, then eat the cake, and then still have the cake afterwards. And I know that that’s the message behind the expression. Why the confusion then?

Well it’s all because of the phrasing. There’s a temporal relationship key to the meaning of the expression. We know that it’s entirely possible to both have and eat a cake if we understand that having the cake comes before eating it. Equally, we also know that it’s not possible to have a cake after eating it, and that’s what the expression is telling us.

The problem is though, that the expression doesn’t give any indication of this temporal relationship whatsoever. The conjunction and only tells us that the two actions in the expression aren’t compatible in a general sense: that having and eating cake simply don’t go together. It’d be clearer if it said You can’t have your cake after you’ve eaten it, but that’s not very catchy.

Reversing the order of the clauses would help a little. You can’t eat your cake and have it too. That’s a bit better, as we normally, logically, put actions that happen earlier before those that happen later in a sentence. Understandably, the order of the phrase has been subject to a lot of debate. One of the earliest recorded versions of the expression is from 1530, when Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, wrote a man can not have his cake and eat his cake. Soon after this though, versions with the clauses reversed appeared. John Heywood, in “A dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue,” listed the expression as Wolde you bothe eate your cake, and have your cake? The eat-have order in fact seems to have been more popular until 1935.

Yet while putting eat first is more logical, you never hear the phrase expressed this way. And that’s probably because putting have first sounds more natural, thanks to the stresses on the words. Hearing (a variation on) it in a popular Bob Dylan song has also probably helped to cement it in our minds. So cemented is it that it sounds odd to put eat first. But on one occasion, that oddness proved quite useful.

You might know about Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, who killed three people and injured 23 others in a bombing campaign between 1978 and 1995. The length of time he was able to operate tells you how hard he was to track down. One of the things that helped lead to his capture was his use of the phrase You can’t eat your cake and have it, too in his manifesto. Kaczynski’s brother, David, recognised that this phrase seemed to match his brother’s writing style, and he contacted the FBI to suggest that Ted might be the one who wrote the manifesto. This led FBI agents to analyse Ted’s letters and compare them to his manifesto, which helped to identify him as the bomber and bring him to justice.

Writers always advise finding your own unique voice while writing, but in this case, fortunately, it worked against the Unabomber. Or maybe the lesson here is that you can’t be a distinctive writer and a bomber with a manifesto. I guess you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

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