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The phrase "sell like hot cakes" is a simile for how quick something is selling. That said, the meaning of "hot cake" is apparently a synonym of pancakes, or before pancakes, corn griddle cake and other varieties. Dictionary.com lists the date of origin dating back to 1839, where it first appeared.

That said, I'm wonder what's so "hot" about hot cakes? Was the time period in 1839 a period in which "hot cakes" were all the rage? Is there something about hot cakes that made them so popular that the phrase was coined?

I'm looking for the etymology of such a phrase.

  • I would assume that "hot cakes" could be cooked quickly with a relatively simple stove, and so they were likely a popular item for street-side diners at the time. I can imagine a workman coming out of a factory for lunch and buying hotcakes from a vendor. Probably served plain, with no syrup (and no plate). – Hot Licks Jun 26 '17 at 2:55
  • The title is potentially confusing. I am tempted to give an answer to the effect that pancakes are served while still hot, as opposed to regular cakes which are allowed time to cool, even though I strongly doubt that is what you want to know, and believe you mean "hot" as a figure of speech meaning popular, rather than the literal meaning of being warm. – Tonepoet Jun 26 '17 at 3:03
  • My guess is that it's more like a muffin or bun that's purchased as street food; possibly even a "hot cross bun". And literally hot. – Xanne Jun 26 '17 at 3:10
  • If something sells like hot cakes, it just means an item is sold extremly quickly. Imagine a batch of loaves, fresh from the oven, that are sold out before they have even had the time to cool down. The same thing for pancakes or buns. – Mari-Lou A Jun 26 '17 at 3:35
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    @cheerslove - Pancakes should always be served before they cool down- otherwise how do you melt the butter? – Jim Jun 26 '17 at 5:37
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According to the following sources the idea of "hot" is that the cakes were (and probably somewhere still are) sold quickly as they were cooked, that is while they were hot (hot and tasty). That kind of cakes would probably remain unsold once they became cold.

Hot cake:

  • a pancake or griddlecake.

(An Americanism dating back to 1675-85)

Sell like hot cakes:

Be a great commercial success, as in I'm sure this new line of coats will go like hot cakes, or She was thrilled that her new book was selling like hot cakes.

  • This term alludes to hot cakes, another name for griddle cakes or pancakes, which are so popular at church sales, food fairs, and similar events that they tend to sell as quickly as they are cooked. [Mid-1800s ]

(The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary)

The following source offers two alternative explanations is to the origin of sell like hot cakes:

  • While the word “hotcake” dates back to the late 17th century and ”pancake” first appears in England around 1400, this phrase, with the figurative meaning “to be in great demand,” didn’t appear until around 1840 and there’s no evidence of a great hotcake demand that might have led to its creation. Instead, etymologists are left to assume that since hotcakes have always been popular at events like county fairs and church socials, where the crowd greatly outnumbers the culinary staff and the cakes often sell as fast as they can be made, the term was coined and spread through popular usage.

  • An alternate explanation is that in Britain, Canada and Australia, pancakes are traditionally eaten on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent in the Christian calendar (Americans know it as Fat Tuesday) because it is an occasion for using up all the fat, butter, and other ingredients that people plan to deny themselves during Lent. In anticipation of 40 days of ritual fasting, the pancakes are gobbled down quickly and effortlessly, even if they’re not literally being sold.

(mentalfloss.com)

  • Don't you mean Britishism? America was created in 1776. – tchrist Jun 26 '17 at 23:51
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    @tchrist The United States of America was created in 1776. The Americas were named much earlier and people born or settled in the American colonies, particularly the British colonies, were known as Americans well before 1776. There is a traditional song called The American Stranger which is generally thought to predate 1776. – BoldBen Aug 30 '19 at 9:40
  • @tchrist And the OED's lists "hot cakes" as "orig. U.S." and its first citation (1683) is by William Penn in "A letter from William Penn proprietary and governour of Pennsylvania…to the Committee of the Free society of traders of that province, residing in London". – TripeHound Aug 30 '19 at 12:51

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