Phrases on Fridays: The NYT Solves the ‘Have Your Cake and Eat It Too’ Conundrum

I know. You’re relieved. That chronic insomnia you’ve been battling can be vanquished now. You’re welcome.

The New York Times has solved the dilemma of the Most Annoying Proverb in the Universe: “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” And like so many other things in English, the confusion began with a misunderstanding, or possibly outright plagiarism.

Ben Zimmer of the NYT writes:

“The version of the proverb with “eat your cake” followed by “having it” does make more sense to many people, and that is in fact how it was first formulated in English.”

Credit: Georgelazenby (wikimedia commons)
Credit: Georgelazenby (wikimedia commons)

Mr. Zimmer goes on to posit that a case of shoddily plagiarizing Jonathan Swift by an author known as “Timothy Fribble” is responsible for the backwards version of the phrase that we know and commonly use today.

So if you re-imagine the saying thusly, “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too,” you’ll soon find that everything in life begins to make more sense. Oxymorons recede from public consciousness. Drivers begin to obey traffic laws without fail. It will stop being 9º F in the middle of March.

But on one point I must strenuously disagree with Zimmer. He ends his otherwise enjoyable piece on a note of defeat, conceding that the wrong (read: bad) version of the phrase is now in force forever and can’t be changed. “And since a return to the predominance of the “eat/have” version is a lost cause at this point, there’s no point in insisting on it, unless you enjoy making your friends’ eyebrows crinkle,” he writes.

Instead, I say: Start using the proper version of the phrase! Saying “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too,” and encouraging your friends to do the same (see what I did there?) represent the first small steps toward reversing this heinous linguistic heresy, forever.