10

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

  • 8
    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
  • 2
    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
  • 5
    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
  • 2
    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
  • 2
    Take the biscuit can also perfectly well be positive. An example from popular culture is the song Joseph’s Coat from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat where Joseph and his coat are described thus: “His astounding clothing took the biscuit / Quite the smoothest person in the district” (and it’s neither negative nor sarcastic there). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 22 at 16:42
-27

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.

  • 1
    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
  • 15
    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
  • 9
    @Jelila what is amazing about that answer? The fact it is totally unsupported? That malware sites have copied this answer and used it as clickbait? That "take the biscuit" is a masturbatory game. It's not. The game is more often referred to as soggy biscuit whose name makes sense. Please see the Wikipedia article: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soggy_biscuit and note that there is no mention whatsoever of "take the biscuit". Wiki's older entries (2009) doesn't mention the idiom either – Mari-Lou A Sep 19 at 6:07
  • 7
    I can find no mention of the game before around the 1960s. Conversely, taking the cake/biscuit goes back at least to the latter part of the 1800s. I would rate the chances of this answer being correct at virtually nil. It should certainly never have been accept as correct, since it does not in any way live up to the standards expected of ELU answers. I’ve added my downvote to the pool to help make it clear that this should not be taken as gospel despite the green tick. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 22 at 16:43
  • 2
    @SF I haven’t looked, so I don’t know – but more importantly, the phrase itself does not have an inherently negative connotation to me. It can be either positive or negative; it just refers to being the most extreme example of something, whether good or bad. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 23 at 12:11
20

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.

  • 1
    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
  • I thought it was takes the bundt. – Phil Sweet Sep 22 at 10:19
17
+200

N.B. Below is an image of the American dish, biscuits with gravy. Note that a biscuit in the US is similar to a scone, a type of cake.

enter image description here

Photo: Lizzie Munro/Tasting Table

This is what British speakers usually think of when using the term biscuit, a type of plain “cookie”

enter image description here

Image source: The Guardian

The following definitions of the idiom, take the biscuit, come from a wide selection of dictionaries on the Internet. It's worth mentioning that the British idiom take the biscuit, and its American English equivalent take the cake, refer to the treat being awarded. In other words, the biscuit (or cake) is the prize.

Note, not one dictionary mentions that the idiom is derived or is also the name of a masturbation game played by teenage British boys, as @SF's unsupported answer claims.

  • Collins: If someone has done something very stupid, rude, or selfish, you can say that they take the biscuit or that what they have done takes the biscuit, to emphasize your surprise at their behaviour.
    REGIONAL NOTE:
    in AM, use take the cake

  • Longman: (British English informal) to be the most surprising, annoying etc thing you have ever heard
    Synonyms
      take the cake (especially American English)

  • Macmillan: (British informal) to be the most silly, stupid, or annoying thing in a series of things

  • Wiktionary: (idiomatic, Britain) To be particularly bad, objectionable, or egregious
    Synonyms
      (to be particularly egregious): take the cake (US)
      (to be of no further use): have the biscuit (Canada)

In 2001, a James Briggs posted the following affirmation on The Phrase Finder

The origin of these sayings almost certainly lies in childhood contests where the winner's prize is a cake or biscuit, but modern use of the terms is almost exclusively ironic -- someone "takes the cake" when their conduct is shocking, surprising, or sets a new low in ethics.

The origin of “take the biscuit” is American

After a little digging, it appears that the British idiom is actually American in origin.

The earliest instance in print appears to be from The Wilmington Morning Star, N.Carolina (behind a paywall)

enter image description here

A Louisville reporter speaks of his town as «the pure city before which the Ohio river crouches and plays its music through the falls and hurries on.” This, it strikes us, rather takes the biscuit.

From Pueblo Chieftain, a Colorado newspaper, December 27, 1884

newspaper snippet

A man in West Newton takes the biscuit when it comes to queer ways of making a living. The individual in question now earns his bread and butter by supplying the good people of that city with hot water.

There are numerous instances recorded by Newspapers.com, from 1880 onwards, one is mentioned below:

But these days, it’s an exclamation to suggest that somebody has done something unprincipled that would win them a prize in a contest of unethicalness. An early example that shows how this sense developed was in the Fort Wayne Daily Gazette of Indiana in November 1880. There seemed to be a quarrel going on between the editor of the Gazette and a rival paper: “For pure cussedness, the new and exceedingly fresh young person [at] the Sentinel takes the biscuit.”

Taken from World Wide Words by Michael Quinion

Further reading

Clearing the air about taking the cake
Where did "that really takes the biscuit/cake" come from?
The conflicting origin of a “piece of cake”

  • 3
    Excellent answer. The surprising thing to me is how many instances of "take/takes/took the biscuit" in a figurative sense pop up in U.S. newspapers within a span of 15 months, starting in early 1880. I count eight unique matches in an Elephind newspaper database search between May 28, 1880, and August 20, 1881—and none before that date. The newspapers in question were located in Kansas (three occurrences), Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, which strongly suggests a Midwest origin of the phrase, although it may have been imported there from England or elsewhere. – Sven Yargs Sep 23 at 17:28
11

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.

  • 1
    How does this tie in to "biscuit"? – Daniel Jun 11 '12 at 18:00
  • 1
    @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
  • 8
    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
  • 1
    @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
  • 1
    @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
10

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.

6

"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...".

  • 11
    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
4

So, you grabbed both your initial definitions from Wikipedia. But if you simply click on the "take the cake" hyperlink there, the Wikipedia entry for that phrase reveals the "bad" or "egregious" definition of the phrase ALSO EXISTS IN THE U.S. In fact, as a Canadian, where we have some British holdovers, but mostly operate with an American lexicon, I am more familiar with a somewhat negative connotation of an extreme, as in "When it comes to being lazy, Johnny really takes the cake." In other words, even using your own source, your initial thesis of the difference between the U.S. and U.K. on this is incorrect.

  • Just noticed @choster already addressed this in a thread comment earlier, but I am leaving this up as I think it's a very relevant counter to the OP's question. – Benjamin Singer Sep 25 at 13:27
2

Note: Other answers have addressed various aspects of the posted question quite well. This answer focuses on a request made in a comment beneath the currently accepted answer: "Can you trace the beginning of the negative connotation of the phrase though?" The answer to that question, it seems to me, is relevant to the poster's more general questions about how the saying came to be, because it sheds light on early sarcastic/ironic/exasperated use the expression.


The assumption that "take[s] the biscuit," although frequently used in a negative or sarcastic sense in the UK, was never used similarly in the United States is not supported by the evidence of early U.S. usage of the expression. Following are five instances from U.S. newspapers of the 1880s in which "takes the biscuit" appears in a negative, sarcastic sense.

From a brief item in the [Honolulu, Hawaii] Pacific Commercial Advertiser (June 19, 1880), reprinted from the Chicago [Illinois] Tribune:

Joe Cook calls Niagara "a dateless roar." When it comes to chopping up the English language beyond recognition, Joe takes the biscuit. —Chicago Tribune.

From "City Globules," in the St Paul [Minnesota] Daily Globe (May 30, 1881):

Yesterday the concern published in this city, but devoted to the interest of Minneapolis, bloviated about a granger who was tackled by a confidence gang and unwound of all his ducats. With characteristic stupidity the blacklegs are mentioned as having held forth at the Metropolitan hotel in this city. For superior penetration of the hind sight order this confession takes the biscuit. The joke that a half dozen "con" men could go from here to Minneapolis, when known by the fly soppers of that burg, and take a trick under their very noses is too good to keep.

From a brief item in the [St. Clairsville, Ohio] Belmont Chronicle (February 7, 1884):

For real good old-fashioned muddy mud this town takes the biscuit. If this thaw continues the streets will be navigable for skiffs. Bellaire Independent, Friday.

From a series of related brief items in the [Tombstone, Arizona] Daily Tombstone (July 12, 1886):

The gall of Banker Henderson of Tucson takes the biscuit.

Consistency thou art a jewel! How is that Henderson.

...

Considerable merriment was caused in the Board of Supervisors this morning by the reading of D. Henderson's communication.

The DAILY TOMBSTONE would inform Mr. D. Henderson of Tucson that even if he thinks the Board of Supervisors have no brains, that they have sense enough to see that he and his associates have not brains enough to rob the people of Cochise county.

And from an untitled item in the [St. Clairsville, Ohio] Belmont Chronicle (September 6, 1888):

For unadulterated "cheek" the St. Clairsville Gazette takes the "biscuit." When the consciousness that the clamor of its party by its President and press in favor of free wool unsettled the market, and caused a depreciation of prices, it has the hardihood to charge the low price of wool to the Republican press. If there is a Democrat in Belmont county who does not know that the "Mills bill" and a Democratic President's declaration in favor of removing the tariff on wool, was the direct cause of the low price of wools at the opening of the season this year, he should be sent to Barnum as a curiosity.

In each case "takes the biscuit" is being used in the same ironic sense in which many U.S. English speakers today use the phrase "takes the prize." It's not that they think biscuits or prizes are inherently or even usually bad; it's that they are making a sarcastic logical inversion in which a presumptively good thing (a biscuit or a prize) is awarded for a bad action, performance, production, or state of affairs.

  • Really? I thought it was because Americans are "rational." ;) – Benjamin Singer Sep 28 at 16:08
  • 1
    I'd just like to say thank you for the bounty. I've been distracted by recent turmoils, firings and resignations on Meta Stack Exchange. – Mari-Lou A Oct 2 at 10:24
0

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.)

  • 4
    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
  • 3
    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
  • 1
    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
  • 1
    Christi, for this answer to be meaningful to me, I would want to see the actual search query, that is, the link that you used to generate this N-gram. Most other answers provide that on EL&U. Also, the question explicitly asked about "taking the biscuit" or "take the biscuit". Your N-gram result was for neither of those. Maybe it wouldn't make a difference, but it needs to be addressed in your answer. – Ellie Kesselman Oct 2 '12 at 3:56

protected by tchrist Oct 1 '12 at 23:40

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.