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I've read conflicting information regarding the meaning of the idiomatic phrase "take the cake".

I am quite confused, because based on one source it means something is exceedingly good and according to another - exceedingly bad.

Could someone shed some light on which of the two is the actual/prevalent meaning of the phrase?

For example which of the two uses sounds more natural? "He drank all the milk and left the empty bottle in the fridge! That really takes the cake!" or "Thanks for all the help! You really take the cake!"

  • possible duplicate of "You really take the biscuit!" – mplungjan Feb 7 '14 at 15:13
  • related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/70685/… – mplungjan Feb 7 '14 at 15:15
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    It is quite normal to use a positive thing in a sarcastic way. So you drank all the milk? - that is brilliant, NOT! – mplungjan Feb 7 '14 at 15:17
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    I'm not at all sure whether "take the cake" and "take the biscuit" are equivalent expressions, but then, before reading the comments above, I'd never in my life heard the "biscuit" version. – Marthaª Feb 7 '14 at 15:54
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Yes it means both, which can obviously be confusing, though there's a sensible enough history to it.

First cake was used as a metonym for all good things.

Dost thou thinke because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more Cakes and Ale?*

Shakespeare could have picked pies or cuts of meat or other things that on average go better with most ales than cake†, but he chose cake because cake is a good example of a generally good thing.

Then from that it became a figurative prize, and why not since it could well be a real prize sometimes too.

They got up a horse and fifty dollars in money a side,… each one to start and ride his own horse,… the winning horse take the cakes. — W. T. Porter, Quarter Race Kentucky, 1847.

Now, consider that we can use the idea of winning a prize in a negative through sarcastic use:

I've met some idiots in my time, but you really win the prize.

And so, "take the cake" moved from only meaning something was very good, to meaning something was very good or sarcastically, very bad:

I've met some kill-joys in my time, but you fairly take the cake. — G. Heyer, Blunt Instrument, 1938.

"Take the biscuit" is simply an alternative expression for the same idea, in either way.

Whether positiver or negative is normally clear from context, and both would be commonly used.

*If anyone is wondering whether a particular minority religion took their use of that expression from this line, the answer is yes.

†Though some ales do go well with some cakes. There's as much to matching beers well as there is to matching wines, but it's a very underestimated skill.

  • I always love your answers, and wondering about the initially mysterious (to me) association of "Cakes and Ale" with a "particular minority religion" caused me to look it up and discover something I had previously not known about Wicca. Thanks! – Cyberherbalist Feb 7 '14 at 17:22
  • @Cyberherbalist the more common form now is "cakes and wine", though my stance is "our not-really-ancient, ancient phrasing comes from Shakespeare, Kipling and Crowley, and until one of us is better at writing than Shakespeare, Kipling or Crowley, then Shakespeare, Kipling and Crowley it should be!". But yeah, we totally stole that line from Shakespeare. – Jon Hanna Feb 7 '14 at 17:26
  • @Cyberherbalist of course if you do find the history of Wicca to be interesting, I did write a book about it, available from all good… well, Amazon have it anyway; really its market is a niche within a niche within a niche, and it'll never sell well, but if you found that case interesting then you might be in that niche. – Jon Hanna Feb 8 '14 at 2:34
  • I assume that you are the Jon Hanna who wrote: "What Thou Wilt: Traditional and Innovative trends in Post-Gardnerian Witchcraft"? Well, I bought your book for my Kindle. :-) Given that I know virtually nothing about Wicca, perhaps it will prove to be over my head, but whatever. I'm Christian, so the book will be mainly of academic interest to me, but as I am always open to new information I am sure I will benefit from your work! Besides, shortly I will be publishing 2 books myself (self-publishing through Amazon CreateSpace), and so I'm interested in reading first works by other new authors. – Cyberherbalist Feb 10 '14 at 18:09
  • @Cyberherbalist it might be not so much over your head, as just a bit boring if you don't have a particular interest (whether an insider or interested outsider's interest). To be honest, I cringe at a lot of the writing now, though I'm happy enough that it explores what it set out to explore reasonably well. – Jon Hanna Feb 10 '14 at 19:24
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The Urban dictionary entry below indicates that 'takes the biscuit' is chiefly of British use.

It explains as well as I could what it is all about. It may have metamorphosed to 'takes the cake' in America, but I suspect it is used in a similar way. I am not aware of the origin, nor is it quoted. I suspect it is proabably naval, and the biscuit in question may have been the infamous 'ship's biscuit'.

://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=take+the+biscuit

  • But ship's biscuit has never been popular, so that wouldn't explain the positive use. – Jon Hanna Feb 7 '14 at 15:26
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    A "biscuit" in British parlance is most analogous to a "cookie" in American usage. As seen in point 1 here – Roger Feb 7 '14 at 15:58
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    @Roger, historically both forms used them of a variety of cakes and breads that were twice-baked (hence the name), with the two forms of English diverging to become more specific (and yet not necessarily twice-baked any more) in different ways. – Jon Hanna Feb 7 '14 at 16:15
  • @JonHanna Interesting. I wonder if the expression(s) pre- or post-date that schism. – Roger Feb 7 '14 at 16:35
  • @Roger, earliest citation for the expression in the "take the biscuit" (rather than cake) form I can see is Shaw in 1907, which would be quite well into this process. – Jon Hanna Feb 7 '14 at 16:46

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