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So, I'm reading up on a list of English Idioms and I see two that bear a striking similarity.

  • "Take the biscuit (UK): To be particularly bad, objectionable, or egregious.
  • "Take the cake (US)": To be especially good or outstanding.

Now I can understand why cake is "good" and "outstanding". In the USA we're rational, and that makes sense to me. However, why are biscuits "bad", "objectionable" or "egregious"? It would seem to me that if the country thought so poorly of biscuits they'd naturally go away. Personally, I like biscuits too; and, I especially like biscuits with gravy.

Why do people in the UK hate biscuits, and how did the saying "take the biscuit" come to be?

You can hear an example of "taking the biscuit" thanks to Thunderf00t

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I don't think either phrase originally referred to whether something was the best or worst, but rather the most extreme example of something. The Mach 3 razor had three blades and the Quattro four, but the Fusion takes the cake with five. In fact, among my friends (in the US), something taking the cake is quite negative, as if it were the last straw or bottom of the barrel. [added] In fact, the second definition of "take the cake" at Wiktionary is identical to the first for "take the biscuit": To be particularly bad, objectionable, or egregious. –  choster Jun 11 '12 at 19:55
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I don't follow. Does it make sense to you that in the USA we all are rational, or is that being rational in the USA it makes sense that (it being rational) that cake is 'good'? And isn't it equally rational that UKer's hate biscuits, given how dry and uncakelike they are? (This is confusing to UKer's because they think that 'gravy' refers to 'saliva, especially dog saliva' (OED, definition 2b) ). –  Mitch Jun 11 '12 at 19:57
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You seem confused, Mitch. In the UK, biscuits are what Americans call cookies. If you mention gravy, then to my British mind, it means this: dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/gravy?q=gravy . It's not normal for British people to eat what Americans call cookies, with gravy. –  Tristan Jun 11 '12 at 20:16
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@Tristan: I think you just made the OPs point that that is not normal and that the British are irrational. Trust me, check the definition. –  Mitch Jun 11 '12 at 21:22
    
Mitch. Did you see the definition of gravy, that I linked to? It seems the definitions of gravy and biscuits that you and Evan Carroll have, are not the same as they are in the UK. That's why I wrote previously, that you seem confused –  Tristan Jun 11 '12 at 21:45

6 Answers 6

up vote -2 down vote accepted

I'm afraid I may know where the negative meaning comes from. People of weak stomach are recommended not to read...

The name probably comes from adolescent boys' game of "limp biscuit" (which is, by the way, the origin of the name of the famous band, Limp Bizkit). The gist of the game is to gather forming a circle and masturbate , ejaculating on a biscuit placed in the middle (...and it softens from moisture in semen in the process, thus "limp"), and then the person that fails to or is last to ejaculate must eat that biscuit.

Expectably, "taking the biscuit" is not a thing to be proud of.

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I find this explanation to be the most convincing thus far; and, after seeing Life of Brian and other perverse films from this region I'm inclined to think it is inline with their culture. Good job doing the research required. –  Evan Carroll Jun 13 '12 at 15:22
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To suggest the origin of the phrase to be the game of "soggy biscuit" (or "limp biscuit") reportedly played in certain public, i.e. fee-based schools in the United Kingdom is not remotely correct. This is why: The game is hardly well known among the general population. Furthermore, to have to eat the soggy biscuit is to have lost, not won. It is not a prize, not in any sense of the word. –  user26778 Oct 1 '12 at 23:15
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@Stan: Yes, it's to have it lost, and so the negative connotation. And yes, it's not common with the general populace, that's why the negative connotation is not common. –  SF. Oct 2 '12 at 10:27

It seems to be ironical, having the sense that whatever has been said or done, even though it’s something bad, gets the prize for its extreme awfulness.

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How does this tie in to "biscuit"? –  Daniel Jun 11 '12 at 18:00
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@Danielδ: In British, a "biscuit" is a cookie. Giving cookies as prizes, mainly to children, is a cultural commonplace. –  chaos Jun 11 '12 at 18:09
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And in fact, I have heard "that takes the cake" used in the same ironical sense in the U.S. –  Peter Shor Jun 11 '12 at 19:18
    
@PeterShor I agree with you, I've always heard "takes the cake" used in a negative sense, never in a positive. –  Kevin Jun 11 '12 at 19:41
    
@chaos I see. But it would still be a better answer if that info was included in it. –  Daniel Jun 11 '12 at 23:11

"Take the cake"/"take the biscuit" both mean the same thing on the surface

But in straightforward speaking America something that takes the prize must be the best. In cynical sarcastic British English, something that takes the prize does so in spite of being the worst outcome. It's pronounced with a world-weary "well doesn't that just take the biscuit...".

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In my experience, Americans are in fact more likely to use "takes the cake" for a spectacularly bad thing than for a spectacularly good thing. –  Peter Shor Jun 12 '12 at 14:37

Green's Dictionary of Slang has the etymology of take the biscuit

to beat all rivals, esp with the implication that the person, announcement, event, etc, is even more startling or appalling than might have been expected

as

the figurative sweetness or tastiness of the biscuit

and relates this to take the cake, take the baker's shop, take the beer, take the candied-peel, take the duff, take the flour, take the gingerbread, take the pastry and take the peach.

I'm not wholly convinced by this, but nothing I have found on Google is any improvement. Take the bun, Australian or American, is shown as having a slightly different meaning:-

to surpass, outdo, especially in excessive or extreme behaviour, to credit something with being the best or worst example

Apologies for quoting at such length, but Green really is the go-to man for information of this sort.

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I don't believe I've ever heard takes the bun in America; in my experience, it's usually takes the cake, although Google does show it was used during the 19th century in NYC. –  Peter Shor Jun 12 '12 at 14:46

In answer to the OP's question How did the saying 'take the biscuit'" come to be?, here is an extract from the entry on the expression in The Penguin Dictionary of Historical Slang by Eric Partridge:

To deserve a prize for excellence; to be supremely remarkable. cf. take the BUN and take the CAKE. Recorded by 1890, but perhaps far older, for its origin seems to be late Medieval and early modern Latin. Wilfried J. W. Blunt, in Sebastiano (p. 88), records that the innkeeper's daughter at Bourgoin, a famous beauty, was present, in 1610, as a delegate at an International Innkeepers' Congress held at Rothenburg-am-Tauber. Against her name, the Secretary wrote, Ista capit biscottum, 'That one takes the biscuit'. ML possesses biscottus or biscottum, a biscuit.

And here is an extract from the entry on Take the cake:

... perhaps a jocular allusion to Gr. πυραμους, prize of victory, orig. cake of roasted wheat and honey awarded to person of greatest vigilance in night-watch ...

This leaves open the question as to when taking the biscuit flipped in British English from meaning especially good to particularly bad.

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Ngrams suggests a possible explanation for the flip in meaning:

popularity of "take the biscuit" in UK Englsh

There is a large local maximum in the mid-late 1940s when food rationing was prevalent in Britain, and biscuits were likely to be perceived as a luxury item. Thus "taking the biscuit" is likely to have been perceived as selfish. (There is another local maximum in the mid-late 30s, a time of global recession, where it may also have taken on this connotation. I am, however, at a loss to explain the apparent large drop at the approximate outbreak of WWII.)

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It is more accurate to say that you infer a possible explanation from this graph. Nothing is shown here but a beginning point for the term's usage in print, and a rise in that usage from then till (roughly) now. –  Robusto Jul 13 '12 at 14:01
    
It would have been more accurate to say that "The data from ngrams suggests to me", but my meaning is quite clear from context. –  Christi Jul 13 '12 at 14:02
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Yeah, except you're trying to suggest that this graph is evidence of something you imagine to be true. –  Robusto Jul 13 '12 at 14:04
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If you mean that I am saying that the graph is evidence to support my proposed explanation, then that is exactly what I am suggesting. As you have no doubt noticed I also point to the weaknesses in the evidence. It is obviously up to you to decide whether on not you believe the theorem, but offering an explanation backed by evidence is exactly what we are supposed to be doing here, and I stand by my answer. –  Christi Jul 13 '12 at 14:19
    
In summary, this is not wikipedia. There is no prohibition on original research, although obviously it is wise to back up any theories you might have with evidence. –  Christi Jul 13 '12 at 14:57

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