Have one’s cake and eat it too

There ain't no such thing as a free lunch

To have one’s cake and eat it too is a popular English idiomatic proverb or figure of speech most often used negatively, to connote the idea of consuming a thing whilst managing to preserve it. This may also indicate having or wanting more than one can handle or deserve, or trying to have two incompatible things. The proverb’s meaning is similar to the phrases, ‘you can’t have it both ways’ and ‘you can’t have the best of both worlds.’

Conversely, in the positive sense, it would refer to ‘having it both ways’ or ‘having the best of both worlds.’ This concept, known as opportunity cost, is one of the most important economic concepts. The phrase’s earliest recording is from 1546 as ‘wolde you bothe eate your cake, and have your cake?’ (John Heywood’s ‘A dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue’). This phrase alludes to the impossibility of eating your cake and still having it afterwards.

Paul Brians, Professor of English at Washington State University, points out that perhaps a more logical or easier to understand version of this saying is, ‘You can’t eat your cake and have it too.’ Brians writes that a common source of confusion about this idiom stems from the verb ‘to have,’ which in this case indicates that once eaten, keeping possession of the cake is no longer possible, seeing that it is in your stomach (and no longer exists as a cake). Alternatively, the two verbs can be understood to represent a sequence of actions, so one can indeed ‘have’ one’s cake and then ‘eat’ it. Consequently, the literal meaning of the reversed idiom doesn’t match the metaphorical meaning. The phrase can also have specialized meaning in academic contexts; Classicist Katharina Volk of Columbia University has used the phrase to describe the development of poetic imagery in Latin didactic poetry, naming the principle behind the imagery’s adoption and application the ‘have-one’s-cake-and-eat-it-too principle.’

Various expressions are used to convey similar idioms in other languages: Chinese (‘To want a horse that both runs fast and consumes no feed’); Danish (‘You cannot both blow and have flour in your mouth’); French (‘to want the butter and the money [from selling] the butter’ – the idiom can be emphasized by adding ‘and the smile of the female buttermaker’); German (‘please wash me, but don’t get me wet!’); Greek (‘you want the entire pie and the dog full’); Italian (‘to have the barrel full and the wife drunk’); Polish (‘The wolf is full, and the lamb – whole’); Portuguese (‘wanting the sun shine on the threshing floor, while it rains on the turnip field’); Spanish (‘wishing to be both at Mass and in the procession’ and ‘swimming and keeping an eye on the removed clothes’); and Argentina (‘the pig and the twenties’ – It comes from the old piggybanks for children that used to contain coins of 20 cents; the only way to get the coins was to break the piggybank open; the phrase can be emphasized by adding ‘and the machine to make sausage’).

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