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In this recent news article I noted the following quote, attributed to a Cornish fisherman:

Another fisher, David Bliss, added: “It’s a bit stupid isn’t it, let’s be honest. They’ve gone in with the loaves and come out with the fairy cakes.

What does it mean? I've tried Googling but mostly get recipes for fairy bread.

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    I think he means that they've swapped something sound, practical and satisfying for something which, although superficially attractive, is ultimately less meaningful. I guess this is Brexit. Don't get me started.
    – BoldBen
    May 29, 2021 at 23:21
  • @BoldBen Did you read the linked article? This has nothing to do with Brexit. May 30, 2021 at 1:17
  • @AnthonyGrist I must admit that I didn't read the article. The phrase must, I think, be either a piece of Cornish dialect or a whimsical invention of the individual concerned. If it's the latter I suspect that he's referring to the visitors as "being away with the faries" at the time of the incident. Whether it's Cornish dialect or individual invention the phrase certainly isn't standard English. Also I don't think that 'fairy cakes' as a concept are all that old so even if it's dialect it'll be comparatively recent.
    – BoldBen
    May 30, 2021 at 4:38
  • Sounds like they made a bad trade for brains and ended up stupid. May 30, 2021 at 5:06
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    @Mitch, yes, a UK thing. They are a term for small, dainty-looking cupcakes that are decoratively iced. A common children's party food, the cheap sort that most people will remember fondly from birthday parties just have a dollop of coloured/flavoured icing on top.
    – Jivan Pal
    May 30, 2021 at 18:29

2 Answers 2

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I dimly (from childhood) remember this as a baking allegory. When ovens were parts of cooking ranges heated by fire rather than precisely controlled gas or electricity, they might first be heated to high temperature for the bread making. If the fire was reduced, the oven would later be at a lower temperature suitable for light cake making. If something went into the oven at the same time as the bread but was forgotten about, it would later be discovered when the cakes came out. Being there so long in such an unplanned manner, it was ruined.

This seems to apply to the described incident. The allegory has force if you are familiar with the difficulties and practices of cooking on the old ranges, but is unlikely to be understood by young people who only know the joys of almost instant temperature control. The speaker pictured in the article, Mr Bliss, is clearly of a similar generation to my own, and would know this.

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  • What a marvellous answer by Anton – that makes so much sense, thank you. Maybe the Grauniad article will now revive the use of this whimsical sounding expression.
    – Annie Dodd
    May 30, 2021 at 14:48
  • The speaker quoted in the linked article has every appearance of being over the age of 60, and more likely a decade or two more - but who knows? Thus, this phrase might indeed have originated as proposed. Or it might just be mixed metaphors, which, regardless of being mixed, successfully impart the outlook of the speaker.
    – Mark G B
    May 30, 2021 at 19:13
  • Kind remarks. I regret showing my age so well. Nevertheless, any questions about postilions being struck by lightning are still before my time!
    – Anton
    May 30, 2021 at 20:43
  • Nowadays, I suppose we would simply say they were seriously baked... May 31, 2021 at 4:46
  • Superb - fits perfectly! Thank you very much.
    – arboviral
    May 31, 2021 at 20:15
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In keeping with Anton's answer, I wonder if the expression means "to do something in an obviously improper order." (The correct order is to come out with the loaves and then go in with the fairy cakes.) Anyone who puts the cakes in first and then bakes the bread ruins them both.

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