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If you've had your cake, haven't you already eaten it? So why can't you have it and eat it too? It doesn't seem to make sense.

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Not that the adage is not "You can not have had cake and eaten it" but that you can not have it, now, at this instant and also eaten it. –  Oldcat Mar 8 at 0:21
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I think I understand now. “Have” means “possess” in this context, not “eat.” –  Chairman Meow Mar 8 at 0:33
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The history of this proverb is discussed in Wikipedia (but has some real cites). General reference? –  bib Mar 8 at 1:07
    
@bib This looks a very good article. I was astonished to discover that the earliest record of its use was 1538. perhaps you should give this Wki article more prominence here, perhaps in an 'answer'. –  WS2 Mar 8 at 20:14
    
To "have" a Cake is to assume that one has eaten it. I can have something, but that does not necessarily mean that I've eaten it. –  delete this account Mar 9 at 0:12

5 Answers 5

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I'd be surprised if this hasn't been asked on this site already, but this is a rather contested idiom.

First, the order of the phrases is uncertain. If the idiom was derived from the phrase, "You can't eat your cake and have it to," as some have suggested it would make much more sense. If you ate it, you no longer have it.

Second, the verbs accepted today a) may not have been the original verbs used or b) may have had different meanings. In some early mentions of this idiom, "eat" is replaced with "ate."

Third, depending on your understanding of the structure, the current phrasing may be fine. If I said, "You can't have your cake and then eat it," then of course this makes no sense. I believe this is the thinking of most people bothered by this current phrasing. If instead you view the verbs as having to occur concurrently, then the idiom makes more sense. By eating it, you no longer have it. As you eat, the less you have.

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I had heard this idiom for years and didn't understand it until I heard someone translate it from Russian this way:

You can't eat a piece of cake and still keep the cake whole.

When I heard it expressed that way, I suddenly understood the meaning.

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It is a metaphor which could perhaps be better worded for clarity. Especially for a non-native speaker, it must be difficult to understand.

It means that you cannot both have a piece of cake on a plate in front of you, all ready to eat, and also to eat it. For once it is eaten, it is gone.

It is usually applied in circumstances where desirable outcomes are mutually exclusive. Let's say I want to take an holiday in June this year, but I also want to stay around to watch the World Cup. I simply have to choose one or the other. I cannot both have my cake, and eat it.

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Actually your first paragraph is precisely wrong. The expression is much easier to understand for a non-native speaker, because unlike in English, in other languages, "have" quite typically does not mean "eat". Non-native speakers will immediately interpret the have as "possess, own the cake", and thus the overall meaning is exceptionally clear to them. OP's confusion is pretty much a dead giveaway that he's a native speaker. –  RegDwigнt Mar 8 at 21:39
    
Interesting point. I am wondering if the idiom is constructed in the way it is, to take advantage of two ways of describing the same thing. Don't know if they were as subtle as that in the 16th century! –  WS2 Mar 9 at 0:28

I have heard this statement used as a mild insult.

People say: "You can't have your cake and eat it too" to express disdain for a situation where two things seemingly should go together but, for whatever reason, something is missing and the situation is now awkward.

For example: you work a 40 hour work week and a foreign entity garnishes all of your wages. You may exclaim: "Wow, I guess I can't have my cake and eat it too."

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I have never heard it used that way. In my experience it is always said with a philosophical air of acceptance that one was clearly expecting too much of nature. 'It can't be helped, you can't have your cake and eat it'. –  WS2 Mar 8 at 20:07
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I agree with this. Wife finds out about your girlfriend? "You can't have your cake and eat it." Want to party hard but also do well in school? "You can't have your cake and eat it too." It's not an insult though, it just doesn't have a good connotation. Like someone breaking the bad news or pointing out what the receiver is avoiding dealing with. You want the environmental foot print of a Prius but the size and power of a Hummer or Jeep? "You can't have your cake and eat it too." –  JFA Mar 8 at 20:14
    
The example I just added is one where a person is unhappy with the way things turned out and expresses mild disapproval of the situation. –  gfrench Mar 8 at 21:08

The original version of this phrase (and the one which makes more sense), is "you can't eat your cake and have it too." It refers most specifically to opportunity cost, in that you cannot spend a resource and still hold it reserve; you have to choose one or the other.

Recently, the reversed phrasing, "you can't have your cake and eat it too" has become more popular, and is generally used to rebuke someone who desires any two contradictory things. For example, you might use the phrase when your Hummer-driving friend complains about how much money he spends on gasoline.

This ngram chart shows how the reversed phrasing became the more popular version around 1940:

ngram

Interestingly, the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski used the original version rather than the popular one, and this was one of the clues that eventually led to his arrest.

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Source of ngram chart: books.google.com/ngrams/… –  Matthew Piziak Mar 8 at 20:34

protected by RegDwigнt Mar 8 at 21:32

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