The Meaning and Origin of ‘You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It’

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the origins of perhaps the greatest cake-based proverb in the English language

I remember being flummoxed by a number of well-known proverbs when I was very young. The first time I heard ‘a stitch in time saves nine’, I remember scratching my head and thinking, ‘What? A stitch in time saves nine what? Nine lives?’

And then, perhaps because I’d spent too long reading speculative science-fiction novels, I thought ‘stitch in time’ was some elaborate operation performed upon the fabric of time, perhaps to open up a wormhole into the deep future or the past.

But no: all it meant was ‘if your clothes are falling apart, repair them quickly otherwise it’ll be worse if you leave it.’ Admittedly my version is less pithy, and loses the metaphorical force conveyed by the assonant six-word original.

Another which I didn’t really ‘get’ was the old proverb, ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it’. I used to think: yes, you can. Only yesterday, I HAD a cake in my hand and then I ATE it. Take that, anonymous proverb-writer! I knew the meaning the proverb conveyed because of the context it was used in by my parents and teachers, but I thought the logic of the expression left a bit to be desired.

Of course, ‘have’ means something different in the phrase ‘you cannot have your cake and eat it’: it means ‘keep’. This only came home to me when I read an obscure poem by the Romantic poet John Keats, ‘On Fame (II)’, which quoted the proverb in a slightly reordered way which made more logical sense:

‘You cannot eat your cake and have it too.’ – Proverb.

How fever’d is the man, who cannot look
Upon his mortal days with temperate blood,
Who vexes all the leaves of his life’s book,
And robs his fair name of its maidenhood;
It is as if the rose should pluck herself,
On the ripe plum finger its misty bloom,
As if a Naiad, like a meddling elf,
Should darken her pure grot with muddy gloom:
But the rose leaves herself upon the briar,
For winds to kiss and grateful bees to feed,
And the ripe plum still wears its dim attire,
The undisturbed lake has crystal space;
Why then should man, teasing the world for grace,
Spoil his salvation for a fierce miscreed?

But as Keats’s use of this proverb as epigraph suggests, the expression – whether as ‘you cannot eat your cake and have it too’ or ‘you cannot have your cake and eat it’ – was well-established by 1816, when Keats wrote ‘On Fame’. We have to go back further to finds the proverb’s true origins.

Indeed, if we go back more than two centuries before Keats, to 1611 and John Davies’ The Scourge of Folly, we find the proverb quoted in a discussion and analysis of the wisdom of proverbs:

‘A man cannot eat his cake and haue it still:’
That may he, vnlesse his retention be ill.
‘What are workemen without tooles:’
Faith workemen still, though counted fooles;
Yet were they so they should be able,
To get their lyuing with their bable …

Once again, the expression appears in the form ‘cannot eat your cat and have it’, rather than ‘cannot have your cake and eat it’. But as Davies’ use of quotation marks around the proverb implies, clearly ‘cannot eat your cake and have it’ was already received wisdom by 1611. So we need to go back even further.

So let’s go back to before 1611 and an earlier writer, a provincial lad from Warwickshire, a poet and dramatist who left the sticks for London, where he performed at the royal court, writing and acting in his own plays, including at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Oh, and this Warwickshire-born writer gave us more than a few handy phrases. Surely you’ve guessed who I’m talking about by now?

No, not William Shakespeare, but … John Heywood.

Heywood (c. 1497 – c. 1580, about whom I have written here) was a pioneer of the English stage in the sixteenth century, even before Shakespeare had been born. He wrote plays for the court from the early 1530s onwards, including The Play of the Wether and the snappily titled The Mery Play betwene Johan Johan, the Husbande, Tyb, his Wyf, and Syr Johan, the Preest.

But Heywood also wrote a book of proverbs, including the now well-known sayings ‘out of sight, out of mind’, ‘two heads are better than one’, and – to complete the Shakespeare connection – ‘All’s well that ends well’.

If we go back to eywood in 1546, and his Dialogue of Proverbs, we find what appears to be the earliest known use of the proverb in print:

Yea, (quoth she), who had that he hath not, would
Doo that hee doth not, as old men have told.
Had I as yee have I would do more (quoth hee)
Than the Priest spake of on Sunday, yee should see.
Ye doo, as I have, (quoth shee), for nought I have,
And nought yee doo. What man! I trow yee rave.
Would yee both eat your cake, and have your cake?
Yee have had of mee al that I would make;
And bee a man never so greedy to win,
Hee can have no more of the foxe but the skin.

Once again, the proverb appears in the form ‘eat your cake and have your cake’.

In conclusion, we cannot say who first came up with the expression ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it’: like so many proverbs, the author must be credited solely as ‘Anon.’

But the phrase was sufficiently well-known by the 1540s for John Heywood to include, and analyse, it in his book about such received wisdom. What’s odd is why the order of the proverb should have changed from the eminently sensible ‘you can’t eat your cake and have it too’ to the less clear ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it’.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.

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