5

Prompted by the answers to my EL&U question, Pinpointing its origins is not a “piece of cake”, I endeavoured to find out who was right. Did the idiom begin life in the US, in a poem written by Ogden Nash, or was it coined by the British RAF around 1938-1940?

For over two hours I tried to find the precise poem where Ogden Nash allegedly wrote the line

Her picture's in the papers now,
And life's a piece of cake

It should be in his 1935 book, The Primrose Path, the OED and Phrase Finder claim it is the first time the idiom, a piece of cake, appeared in print.

Well, you would think it would be easy as pie to unearth the doggerel in its entirety. We are, after all, on the Internet but you would be sorely mistaken. Try as I did, I did not find the line that preceded or followed the cited verse. I Googled, scoured the net, and followed promising leads all of which lead to nothing.

I tried via Internet Archive but no preview is available, I have since registered and I am currently on their waiting list

enter image description here

I used Google Books to search the exact phrase, but that too failed miserably. Here are the screenshots that show my failed attempts:

enter image description here

Entering "cake" in the search box pulls up two results, both of which are unrelated to the idiom "a piece of cake".

enter image description here

To give users an idea of Ogden's poetry, here is the only verse I found online that was published in The Primrose Path, it is about a pig.

Sigmund Freud

Who’s afreud of the big bad dream?
Things are never what they seem;
Daddy’s bowler, Auntie’s thimbles,
Actually are shocking symbols.
Still, I think, a pig’s a pig –
Ah, there, symbol-minded Sig!

Source: http://www.porkopolis.org/pig_poet/ogden-nash/

I searched for "pig" in the Google Books search box, and a snippet appeared, although it says “Daddy's Derby, Auntie's thimbles.” Yet, I cannot find the verse or the title of the prose that proves Nash first used the idiom, a piece of cake, and not the RAF. It is baffling that Ogden's poem, used as supporting evidence by innumerable sources, is unfindable.

Simple Question

  • Has anyone got the book? Can anyone find the light verse where Nash wrote "piece of cake"?
  • 3
    This question belongs on another site in the Stack Exchange network. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 6 '18 at 17:54
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    @EdwinAshworth - this will nor prove first usage, but will prove that its earliest available usage is from AmE. I think OP is asking in relation to their previous related question where they asked if “piece of cake was originally from AmE or BrE. Evidence of this is relevant and on topic. – user067531 Mar 7 '18 at 6:17
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    Mari-Lou, I have a copy of the 1935 American edition, but can't find the quote. The OED's attestations all come from a 1936 edition; for purposes of the "British or American" question it may be pertinent that there seem to have been significant changes made between the two. The OED has 12 attestations from the 1936 work, but I was only able to locate five of those in my book, and only one was on the page listed; the rest were randomly redistributed. More problematically, where the OED has "tank" (of beer) my version has "mug", so "piece of cake" might not have been Nash's own phrase. – 1006a Mar 7 '18 at 20:47
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    Yes, I'm fairly certain that there is an Atlantic divide between the editions; mine (1935) was published by Simon and Schuster in New York, but the OED's citation lists London as the place of publication. I haven't found anything that remotely resembles that line (or most of the OED's other quotations), but I will keep looking. I was mainly skimming the beginning and ends of sentences, but if it's actually a clause in the middle of a sentence I could have missed it. – 1006a Mar 7 '18 at 21:03
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    Not an answer, but... I found a strikingly similar verse in Ogden Nash’s Many Long Years Ago (1945) [snippet view]: “Her picture’s in the papers now, And everything is jake.” ... – Sven Yargs Mar 20 '18 at 2:37
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+300

So the book arrived today and I found the sentence, exactly on the page stated in 1006a's answer (page 172). I added some more links to photos at the end of my answer.

I also recommend reading the comments (both on the question and the answers), there are some interesting references to earlier versions of the poem in which "And everything is jake" took the place of "And life's a piece of cake". It remains unclear whether the change was made by the author himself or a (British) editor.

The poem starting at 'Mrs. Sonia Katzenstein':

cropped poem

Links to full-size photos

First page of the full verse

Second page of the full verse

Freud poem

Title page

Publication information

Attribution: Nash, Ogden. The Primrose Path. London: Bodley Head, 1936.

  • This is the same poem that DavePhD notes was published in the June 24, 1933 issue of The New Yorker, except that there the crucial couplet runs "Her picture’s in the papers now,/ And everything is jake." So the question is, why did Nash change from "And everything is jake" to "And life's a piece of cake"? Was he invoking an expression Britons were already familiar with? Or was he making up something new because he thought Britons might be less baffled by that expression than by his use of the US slang term jake? – Sven Yargs Mar 30 '18 at 1:34
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    @Sven: We actually don't know whether Ogden Nash changed it, or whether the British editors, completely baffled by the word jake, changed it. – Peter Shor Mar 30 '18 at 10:11
  • Thank you so much for actually buying a hard copy, the 300 bounty is yours. Could I ask you to copy the verse beginning with "Mrs Katzenstein", so visitors from Google etc. searching the verse can find it here? As to "why" jake (US) was changed to "cake" (UK) feel free to add a supposition, it will make your answer all the more complete. Thank you again!! So it's official, we have the physical proof that the first time the figurative meaning "piece of cake" appeared in print was 1936. – Mari-Lou A Mar 30 '18 at 11:56
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    @Mari-LouA Thanks, I have reformatted it so that all the trivia photos are links. Just one picture of the poem in the body now. :) – JJJ Mar 30 '18 at 14:34
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+150

Ogden Nash was a twentieth-century American poet, who authored over 500 poems. One of his books of poems was The Primrose Path,

The OED seems to be the source of the original citation of Nash's The Primrose Path as the earliest identified figurative use in print of "piece of cake". The online entry for piece1 includes, under Phrases, this entry and attestation:

piece of cake n. colloq. something easy or pleasant.
1936 O. NASH Primrose Path 172 Her picture's in the papers now, And life's a piece of cake.

The citation details given are

Ogden Nash · The primrose path · 1936.
London

According to WorldCat (an online catalog of libraries around the world), there were at least two editions, one published in 1935 in New York by Simon & Schuster and the other in 1936 in London. They seem to be rather different; the US edition is 354 pages of apparently all original works, while the UK edition is listed as a slim 218 pages and apparently contains "A selection from 'The primrose path' & 'Happy days': also a few other verses ..." (although the WorldCat entry for that version lists 354 pages).

These differences may explain why, of the twelve words and phrases that the OED attributes to Primrose Path, I was only able to locate six in the 1935 book, not including "piece of cake".2 Of these, only one was on the page listed; the rest were randomly redistributed. On page 171, which is the cited page for the "piece of cake" quotation, there is a poem "The Strange Case of Professor Primrose" about an absentminded professor who accidentally becomes a Pullman Porter.

Interestingly, where the OED has "tank" (of beer) the version I have has "mug". This is similar to the "derby"/"bowler" difference raised in the original question. If Nash's British editors made a practice of suggesting (or unilaterally making) changes to the text, perhaps to make it more accessible to British readers, that could explain how an allegedly British phrase turned up in a book of poems by an American author.3


1 "piece, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, January 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/143547. Definition P.15. Unfortunately, the OED is a subscription service; many people, including most UK residents, can access the OED online through their local or institutional library. Check with your librarian for more information.

2 Clicking on the link to "find more citations from Primrose Path" leads to quotations for the following twelve words and phrases; my findings or lack thereof are in parentheses:

  1. Adamless, adj. 1936
    ...1936 O. Nash Primrose Path 218 Lonely Eve in an Adamless Eden. (Not located)
  2. beskirted in be-, prefix 1936
    ...1936 O. Nash Primrose Path 165 And all the trim and not so trim ladies who have been be-trousered begin thank God once more to be be-skirted. (Not located)
  3. beep, v. 1936
    ...1936 O. Nash Primrose Path 101 Beep the horn and howl the klaxon For Hebrew, Latin and Anglo-Saxon; Howling klaxon, beeping horn. (YES, “Beat That Light”, p. 343)
  4. divot, n 1935
    ...1935 O. Nash Primrose Path 1936 105 The wretched golfer, divot-bound. (Not located)
  5. hellgrammite, n. 1935
    ...1935 O. Nash Primrose Path 1936 122 This human hellgramite that I think we could all dispense with. (Not located)
  6. over-inflate, v. 1936
    ...1936 O. Nash Primrose Path 14 Jonathan over-inflates his lungs. (YES, “Tell It to the Esquimos, or Tell It to the Esquimaux”, p. 60)
  7. phooey, int., adj., and n. 1936
    ...1936 O. Nash Primrose Path 185 And I'll say, ‘Phooie!’ or something of the sort. (Not located, but there is a poem entitled "Weather Clear, Track Fast, Horses Phooie!" on p. 303)
  8. piece of cake in piece, n. 1936
    ...1936 O. Nash Primrose Path 172 Her picture's in the papers now, And life's a piece of cake. (Not located)
  9. setting-up exercise in setting, n.1 1935
    ...1935 O. Nash Primrose Path 37 A few setting-up exercises. (YES, “There Is No Danger Line”, p. 37)
  10. symbol-minded in symbol, n.1 1936
    ...1936 O. Nash Primrose Path 55 Still, I think, a pig's a pig—Ah, there, symbol-minded Sig! (YES, “Sigmund Freud”, p. 141)
  11. tank, n.8 1936
    ...1936 O. Nash Primrose Path 46 What can a man..Ask..More than a pipe..And a modest tank of beer? (SORT OF, “Home, 99 44/100 % Sweet Home”, p. 117: What can a man, can a family man Ask in the way of cheer More than a pipe, and a reading lamp, And a modest mug of beer?)
  12. third baseman in third adj. (and adv.) and n. 1936
    ...1936 O. Nash Primrose Path 38 Long have I wondered why a locomotive engineer should be so much nicer than an ambassador or a novelist or a banker or a third-baseman or a quartermaster or a lancer. (YES, “Ding Dong, Toot Toot, All Aboard!”, p. 108)

3 In fact, @Sven Yargs was able to track down a very similar line to the OED's "piece of cake" quotation, but without the phrase in question:

Her picture's in the papers now, And everything is jake.
Ogden Nash, Many Long Years Ago, 1941 (snippet view)

  • Don't forget the line in the Sigmund Freud poem, 1936, which I quoted: *Daddy’s Bowler, Auntie’s thimbles,*in the 1935 version it's "Daddy's Derby" So it seems some words were changed, which is rather odd for a poem. I wonder if the author left a preface or if the British editor wrote a foreword. – Mari-Lou A Mar 24 '18 at 17:31
  • You're right, added! – 1006a Mar 25 '18 at 4:56

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