Long-time reader, Lynn Francis, once asked about “Da” as used for “Daddy” in Britain and Ireland. That query inspired the column, “Baby Talk! Who’d have known it?” printed October 18, 2002.
Recently, Francis questioned, “To have your cake and eat it too.” She suggested that “too” isn’t really part of the saying since, “To have your cake and eat it,” says it all.
Experts are of two minds. Chambers English Idioms, agreeing with Francis’s preferred wording, defines the proverb this way: “To enjoy the advantages of two alternative courses of action etc. when it is, or ought to be, impossible to do both at once.”
The Handbook of Commonly Used American Idioms using, “To have one’s cake and eat it too,” interprets the meaning as, “To use or spend something and still keep it; to have both when you must choose one.”
The earliest recorded version occurs in a 1538 letter from Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, wherein he writes, “A man can not have his cake and eate his cake.”
In John Heywood’s 1546 book, A dialogue Conteinying the Nomber in Effect of All the Proverbes in the Englishe Tongue, we again find the saying, this time as, “Wolde you bothe eate your cake and have your cake?”
Notice the reverse order in this last example. “Having” cake comes after “eating” cake, not before.
This having/eating order persists for almost 200 years. Then, in 1738, in Jonathon Swift’s, Polite Conversation, it shows up as, “She cannot eat her cake and have her cake.”
Still, only since 1812 have we consistently used have the cake before eat the cake, although it’s more logical to use eat before have.
But the order of the two verbs isn’t what bothers Francis. It’s the word, “too.” Not only does she find too unnecessary, but she believes it leads to a confused meaning because eating and having are conflicting actions. Too, meaning also, simply doesn’t fit.
Classifying too as an adverb, Oxford defines it as: “In addition; furthermore; besides.” Oxford also notes that too began to be spelled with two Os only in the 16th century.
Since all three words contained in Oxford’s definition seem out of place in the proverb, let’s look at synonyms. Among too’s synonyms, we find additionally, also, as well, to boot, into the bargain.
Substituting any of these for too in our proverb, we end up with a most unsatisfactory saying. But, in 1611, English poet, John Davies (1569-1626), re-worded this proverb. He wrote: “A man cannot eat his cake and have it stil.”
This may well be the best version we’ve looked at, although, the Hebrew rendition of the same proverb is good: “You can’t eat the cake and keep it whole.”
Despite all this, Francis is fighting an already lost battle. The popular version of the saying, in both print and conversation, is: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”
No authority mentions that “to have” often means “to eat.” But that’s probably a red herring. Besides, everyone understands the message of the popular version.