You can't have your cake and eat it

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You can't have your cake and eat it (too) is a popular English idiomatic proverb or figure of speech.[1][2][3] Many people misunderstand the meanings of "have" and "eat" as used here but still understand the proverb in its entirety and intent and use it in this form. Some people feel this form of the proverb is incorrect and illogical and instead prefer "you can't eat your cake and have it (too)", which is in fact closer to the original form of the proverb[4] (see further explanations below) but very rare today. Other rare variants use "keep" instead of "have".[5]

The proverb literally means "you cannot both possess your cake and eat it". It can be used to say that one cannot or should not have or want more than one deserves or can handle, or that one cannot or should not try to have two incompatible things. The proverb's meaning is similar to the phrases "you can't have it both ways" and "you can't have the best of both worlds." Conversely, in the positive sense, it refers to "having it both ways" or "having the best of both worlds."

Having to choose whether to have or eat your cake illustrates the concept of trade-offs,[citation needed] or opportunity cost.[6]



The order of the clauses in the saying has been the subject of some debate, and was even used in forensic linguistics (contributing to the identification and arrest of the so-called Unabomber[7]).

An early recording of the phrase is in a letter on 14 March 1538 from Thomas, Duke of Norfolk to Thomas Cromwell, as "a man can not have his cake and eate his cake".[8]

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?".[9] In John Davies' "Scourge of Folly" of 1611, the same order is used, as "A man cannot eat his cake and haue it stil."[10] In Jonathan Swift's 1738 farce "Polite Conversation", the character Lady Answerall says "she cannot eat her cake and have her cake."[11]

The order was reversed again in a posthumous adaptation of "Polite Conversation" in 1749, "Tittle Tattle; or, Taste A-la-Mode", as "And she cannot have her Cake and eat her Cake."[12][13][14] From 1812 (R. C. Knopf's "Document Transcriptions of War of 1812" (1959) VI. 204) is a modern-sounding recording as "We cannot have our cake and eat it too."[15]

Literal meaning[edit]

Paul Brians, Professor of English at Washington State University, points out that perhaps a more logical or easier to understand version of this saying is, "You can’t eat your cake and have it too." Professor Brians writes that a common source of confusion about this idiom stems from the verb to have which in this case indicates that once eaten, keeping possession of the cake is no longer possible, seeing that it is in your stomach (and no longer exists as a cake).[16]

Alternatively, the two verbs can be understood to represent a sequence of actions, so one can indeed "have" one's cake and then "eat" it. Consequently, the literal meaning of the reversed idiom doesn't match the metaphorical meaning. The phrase can also have specialized meaning in academic contexts; Classicist Katharina Volk of Columbia University has used the phrase to describe the development of poetic imagery in Latin didactic poetry, naming the principle behind the imagery's adoption and application the "have-one's-cake-and-eat-it-too principle".[17]

Other languages[edit]

Various expressions are used to convey similar idioms in other languages:


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ you can’t have your cake and eat it too
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Language Log: Forensic linguistics, the Unabomber, and the etymological fallacy". Retrieved 2013-05-20. 
  8. ^ Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 13 Part 1: January-July 1538 (p. 189 ref. 504). Institute of Historical Research ("Sponsor"). Retrieved 2013-01-04. 
  9. ^ "cake". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. 
  10. ^ Shapiro, Fred R (2006). The Yale Book of Quotations. ISBN 9780300107982. Retrieved 2013-01-04. 
  11. ^ Swift, Jonathan (1841). The Works of Jonathan Swift ...: Containing interesting and valuable papers. Retrieved 2013-01-04. 
  12. ^ Timothy Fribble (Pseud.), Jonathan Swift (1749). Tittle Tattle. Retrieved 2013-01-04. 
  13. ^ "Have Your Cake and Eat It Too". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-08-25. 
  14. ^ "Eat/Have, Have/Eat Your Cake!". ABLE Innovations Blog. Retrieved 2012-08-25. 
  15. ^ Speake, Jennifer (2008). " Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. ISBN 9780199539536. Retrieved 2013-01-04. 
  16. ^ Common Errors in English: Eat Cake. Washington State University. Retrieved 2008-03-26. 
  17. ^ Katharina Volk, The Poetics of Latin Didactic. Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid, Manilius. Retrieved 2009-06-05. 
  18. ^ This is an euphemism for a common vulgar expression и рыбку съесть, и на хуй сесть first used by Alexander Pushkin in a private letter.

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