How one proverb became a recurring part of the of the Brexit debate

What is "cakeism"? An English professor explains the confusion over “having your cake and eating it too”—and suggests some cake-based ways forward...

March 07, 2018
The phrase "have your cake and eat it too" has become part of the Brexit negotiations. How?
The phrase "have your cake and eat it too" has become part of the Brexit negotiations. How?

The well-worn proverb “you can't have your cake and eat it” is enjoying something of a revival in the heated exchanges over Brexit. Ever since Boris Johnson characterised his policy on cake as “pro having it and pro eating it too,” Brussels has sought to alert the British negotiators to the impossibility of adopting such an attitude.

In October 2016, European Council president Donald Tusk, taking a rather literal approach to the aphorism, called upon proponents of the 'cake philosophy' to carry out a scientific experiment: “Buy a cake, eat it, and see if it is still there on the plate.”

It appears that not all ministers took up this challenge, since, in November 2016, a page of notes scribbled by an aide to Conservative MP Mark Field caught on camera were found to contain the phrase: “What's the model? Have your cake and eat it.” This embarrassing leak led to a formal denial that having one's cake and eating it was official Government policy. Despite this, Theresa May's speech last Friday was dismissed by one senior EU official as “still in the world of cakeism.”

Whether one takes a scientific or philosophical approach to the problems of cakeism, one of the difficulties it raises is that, to many people, the concept of wanting to have a cake and eat it seems eminently reasonable.

The US singer Justin Timberlake recently appealed to his 65 million Twitter followers for clarification: “Can someone please explain the saying ‘You just want your cake and to eat it too.’ What else am I about to do with a cake?”

The reason for the confusion is that the original form of the phrase has been reversed in its modern incarnation. Here it is in a 16th-century book of proverbs: “Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?” The idea, then, is that once you have eaten your cake, you can no longer continue to possess it; that is, sometimes you are forced to choose between two irreconcilable options.

One of the reasons this phrase has been so widely taken up in the EU discussions is that the concept to which it relates cuts across national borders and languages; similar idioms can be traced in many cultures, albeit with their own regional twist. In French the equivalent is “vouloir le beurre et l'argent du beurre” (“to want the butter and the money from the butter,” to which the extension “et le sourire de la crémière”—“and a smile from the dairywoman” can be appended for added effect.

This explains the angry response to the leaked Brexit notes from Xavier Bettel, Luxembourg PM: “They want to have their cake, eat, and get a smile from the baker.” In Romania it is impossible to “reconcile both the cabbage and the goat,” while in Italy one cannot “have the barrel full and the wife drunk.” In Germany, you can't dance at two weddings at the same time, while the Czech version refers to the impossibility of simultaneously occupying two stools.

Despite the ubiquity of the phrase, it is only in the English version that the object of desire is a cake; even Justin Timberlake later confessed to preferring pie. In fact, the British obsession with cake has left its impression on the English language in numerous ways. The belief that the mouth was designed principally for its consumption is suggested by the slang term “cake-hole.”

Something that is easily achieved is “a piece of cake,” the good life is known as “cakes and ale,” “the icing on the cake” refers to an unnecessary but desirable enhancement (perhaps with “a cherry on the top”), to win is “to take the cake,” although this is now more commonly used ironically (while “biscuit”—another national favourite—has come to replace “cake”).

For those responsible for dividing up the “national cake,” and hammering out trade deals as part of the Brexit negotiations, English cake idioms offer some useful practical advice. Something that sells quickly and in large quantities is said to “go like hot cakes”—suggesting a potentially lucrative source of revenue—while the archaic expression “one's cake is dough,” referring to an unsuccessful project, reminds us that not all cake-related endeavours end in success.