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Etymology of ‘Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too’

Has anyone ever told you, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too!” This has always baffled me. What’s the point of having a cake if you can’t eat it? Even Marie-Antoinette understood that cake is for eating, and gosh-darn-it she wasn’t going to get in the way of anyone enjoying cake if they wanted to (though not really).

This confusion comes from interpreting the “having” and “eating” of cake as sequential acts rather than concurrent. In early accounts the phrase was reversed to read, “You can’t eat your cake and have it too,” implying that once the cake is eaten, you can no longer possess it.

In fact, this archaic use of the phrase was used in identifying Ted Kaczynski as the Unabomber.

James Fitzgerald, forensic linguist for the FBI, states that when coming across the reversed phrase in the Unabomber’s manifesto, “He technically had it right and the rest of us had it wrong. It was one of the big clues that allowed us to make the rest of the comparison.”

Of course, use of the word “wrong” is something grammatical pendants will argue, but in either case, our current use of “have your cake and eat it, too” certainly presents an issue of grammatical correctness vs stylistic correctness. While the sentence is grammatically correct and—if interpreted in a particular way—logically correct, it is still stylistically unclear. So if you also were confused by this saying, try switching your clauses, and breathe easy knowing that no one is stopping you from eating cake.

But remember: once you eat it, it’s gone.