Glossary Home Proverbs

You can’t have your cake and eat it too

“You can’t have your cake and eat it too” is an English proverb that is used to remind someone that they have to make a decision and that decision is going to result in something negative.

No matter which option someone chooses, they’re going to miss out on the other. This might mean losing access to one’s “cake” or enjoying the flavor of it. The proverb is often related to others, like “you can’t have it both ways.”

You can't have your cake and eat it too meaning and origin


Meaning

“You can’t have your cake and eat it too” is a proverb that is used when someone wants to convey a specific message. It reminds the listener that it’s impossible to keep something while also utilizing it at the same time.

The metaphor of cake is used as a way to convey the impossibility. Someone can’t eat a cake while at the same time retaining the cake for the future or for one’s pleasure. The proverb makes more sense if the word “have” is replaced with “keep.” So, “You can’t keep your cake and eat it too.”

Interestingly, some writers and scholars believe that reversing the proverb entirely means that it makes more sense. So, saying, “You can’t eat your cake and have it too.” The eat/have arrangement makes more sense for some. When considering this reversed version, one is faced with the same type of dilemma, but it makes slightly more sense to consider eating a cake and still having it afterward.

When to Use the Phrase

It’s possible to use “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” in a wide variety of situations. It’s an interesting way to remind someone that it’s impossible to have the best of both worlds. When making a decision between two options, you’re always going to lose something in the process. For instance, if you decide to eat your cake, you’ll have the pleasure of that experience, but you’ll no longer possess a cake. But, if you decide to “have” or keep the cake, you’ll be able to take comfort in the fact that you still own it. This will mean that you lose out on the experience of eating it.

Someone might use the phrase to remind a friend that they need to go ahead and make a decision, as there’s no way to maintain both sides of an option. It’s easy to see this phrase exchanged between friends, family members, and even close colleagues. But it’s fairly colloquial. This means that it may not be appropriate for all occasions. For example, the proverb may not be suited for business meetings, academic papers, etc.

Example Sentences

  • You’re going to have to decide sooner or later what you want to do. You know you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
  • She finally made a decision. Talk about waiting until the last minute to decide whether to have cake or eat it.
  • I don’t want to choose between having my cake or eating it. There’s too much at stake.
  • This business decision is exactly like trying to decide between having your cake and eating it.


Why Do Writers Use “You can’t have your cake and eat it too?”

Writers use “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” in the same way that the proverb is used in everyday conversations. It’s an easy and sometimes interesting way to remind readers about the implications of decisions. Something is always going to be lost when a character chooses one thing over another. It’s a fairly lighthearted phrase as well. This means that it could be used to lighten a difficult decision.

Origins

Like most proverbs and idioms, this one doesn’t have a clear origin. The earliest known written record of the phrase being used dates to March 1538 in a letter from the Duke of Norfolk to Thomas Cromwell. He wrote:

[…] a man can not have his cake and eat his cake.

There is another example a few years later in A dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue by John Heywood. Here, he writes:

[…] wolde you bothe eate your cake, and have your cake?

The phrase became better known after it was used by Jonathan Swift in “Polite Conversation,” published in 1738. In this work, his character Lady Answerall uses the line:

she cannot eat her cake and have her cake.

As time progressed, the proverb became more common and started resembling the phrase that’s used today. For example, in Document Transcriptions of the War of 1812 by R.C. Knopf, published in1959. Here, readers can find the phrase in what is almost its contemporary form. It reads:

We cannot have our cake and eat it too.


FAQs

What is the tone of “You can’t have your cake and eat it too?”

The tone is explanatory and conversational if the proverb is used directly. But, like most phrases, the tone changes depending on context. It could come across far crueler or funnier depending on when it’s used.

When can I use “You can’t have your cake and eat it too?”

You can use “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” when you’re with friends or family members, and you want to remind someone that they have to make a decision. That decision is going to result in the loss of something, but it still has to be made.

Is “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” an interesting proverb?

It is an interesting proverb, one that is slightly more complicated than other well-known English-language idioms and proverbs. For most readers who are seeing this phrase for the first time, it might not make a lot of sense. This helps make it more interesting as a whole.

Is “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” a cliché?

Any phrase becomes cliché after it’s used for a number of years, and this one is no exception. Most writers will use other similar proverbs due to the overused nature of this phrase.

Is it correct to say “have your cake and eat it” or “eat your cake and have it?”

This is a common debate among scholars in regard to this proverb. For some, the latter version makes more sense. But, both versions are technically correct. It’s possible to use either, and most listeners should understand what you’re trying to say.


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