Have your cake and eat it, too

All the confused twentysomethings out there, drink me in! Observe my shoes! Do I strike you as somebody who has anything figured out?


I love the English language – stay with me here, I swear I’m not about to launch into a fit of misplaced Anglophilia (they gave us Harry Potter, but also Love Island) – but some of it I don’t follow.

Take this proverb, for instance,

can't have your cake and eat it, too,

which never sat right with me, because every time I hear that I think, Can’t you, though?

Of course, I’m not the first to point this out. Billy Connolly says it well:

When people say “Oh you just want to have your cake and eat it too”. Fucking right! What good is a cake if you can’t eat it?,

The Big Yin

Here’s where the intricacy of the English language comes into play. If you read have as retain, then you indeed can’t both eat the cake up and then continue to have it (this goes, in fact, for anything edible, but works inversely for emotion, where if you eat your up your feelings instead of letting them out, they’ll hit you harder down the road).

Intuitively, it makes much more sense when you read the aphorism the other way around, like here:

can't eat your cake and have it, too,

so why, then, wasn’t it constructed that way in the first place?


Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?

It was. As linguist Ben Zimmer points out in his NYTimes column, first recorded use of the phrase stems from the handsome gentleman pictured above, English playwright John Heywood, who wrote it all the way back in 1546 in a neat little compendium with the concise title,

A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue compacte in a matter concernyng two maner of mariages, made and set foorth by Iohn̄ Heywood.

And while we have, over the past centuries, clearly seen improvement in the department of titling manuscripts, we seem to have stepped back in other areas. Otherwise, how would one explain sacking the much clearer ordering eat cake/have it too in favour of the inferior have cake/eat it too in common parlance?

Zimmer and others give examples for further use of what I’d like to call the correctly ordered phrase in literature. They also exhibit a very interesting case of forensic linguistics, the case of  maths professor (his less adverse side) and domestic terrorist (his more adverse side) Ted Kaczynski, whom the FBI identified as the Unabomber because of his use of the correctly ordered cake phrase, which his mother had taught him in his youth. What nobody touches upon is how or why the flipped version subsequently outperformed the other one, perhaps because they’re trained professionals in their fields and have a better understanding than me of questions that make sense and questions that don’t.

However, this isn’t the age of substantiated professionalism, it’s the age of anyone becoming an expert in anything in the matter of hours as long as Google search is installed on their smartphone, and so I can reveal to you with great pleasure that today and today only I am a linguist!

This is Jonathan Swift.

Jonathan Swift has done a great deal for both literature and the English language itself, but you know him from Gulliver’s Travels. Swift was a cheeky little minx who was such a master of satire that he coined a whole own style of it and who used a series of pseudonyms under which he published his works. When I say series, I’m not overstating.

Swift’s pseudonyms:

Bickerstaf, Isaac
Bickerstaf, Isaak
Bickerstaff, Isaac
Bikerstaf, Isaac
Corolini da Marco
Corolini di Marco
D. S.
Draper, M. B.
Drapier, M.B.
Du Baudrier, sieur
Fribble, Timothy
Gulliver, Lemuel
Gulliver, Lemuel, Jun.
Gulliver, Lilliputius
Hope, Thomas
J. S. D. D. D. S. P. D.
Misosarum, Gregory
Philomath, T.N.
Pun-Sibi., Tom
Schwift, D.
Schwift, Jonathan
Svift, D.
Svift, Dž.
Svift, Džonatan
Svifts, Džonetens
Swif, Jonathan
Swifft, D.
Swifft, Jonathan
Swift, Dean
Swift, Džonat
Swift, Jonatan
Tom Pun-Sibi.
Wagstaff, Simon

Such a schwift scherzerus, that Jonathan! Anyway, in 1738, Swift published Polite Conversation, where he made fun of the phrase by having one of his characters say,

Why, my Lord, she was handsome in her Time; but she cannot eat her Cake, and have her Cake

Lady Answerall

Four years after his death, in 1749, a peculiar farce by the name of Tittle Tattle was published by a man called Timothy Fribble, a pseudonym attributed to Swift. It’s peculiar because a) it very much borrows from Polite Conversation and b) you won’t readily find any information on the pseudonym itself or the intent of Swift in writing it or the people involved in publishing the manuscript quite some time after he had passed (though I suppose he could have written it for the sake of writing and the publisher could have published it for the sake of publishing, but try and sell that story to an adventurer like me).

Interestingly, Tittle Tattle features the following sentence said by one of its characters,

And she cannot have her Cake and eat her Cake.

Lady Tattle

There’s no evidence that would allude to Swift himself coining this version of the phrase, so the only thing we can take away from this is that it had already been around at that point. In the process of linguistic natural selection it would prove to outdo its peer, perhaps because, phonetically speaking, it rolls off the tongue easier.

If you say it out loud (and please do, wherever you currently are),

can’t have and eat 

flows naturally whereas

can’t eat and have

stutters just a smidge more in comparison. Say the whole phrase quickly and notice how well both can’thave and andeat blur into unison almost by themselves.

So is that the real deal behind the cake conspiracy or are entirely other forces at work?

Well, I can’t answer that, but what I do know is that you should floss!

Oh, by the way, about that John Heywood compendium. Almost more interesting than the line I’ve given above is what occurs right before it. It’s all a collection of dialogue between married couples, and here’s how that part goes:

Ye doo, as I haue (quoth she) for nought I haue, And nought ye do. What man, I trowe ye raue. Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?


She says [to him]: You do as I have, for nought I have, and nought you do.

Which must be one of the sickest burns in all of literature, just how good is that?! And also, having been written somewhen in the 16th century, it just goes to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Marriages, eh? I bet John Heywood even knew how bloody stupid blogs are.

Turns out no matter how far back you go, we’re all the same. This is only further proven by the next line which alludes to a festivity the couple in the compendium would later take part in:

What man, I trowe ye raue.


Dude, I trust you're a raver.

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