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You can't have your cake and eat it

You can't have your cake and eat it (too) is a popular English idiomatic proverb or figure of speech.[1] The proverb literally means "you cannot simultaneously retain your cake and eat it". Once the cake is eaten, it is gone. It can be used to say that one cannot or should not have or want more than one deserves or is reasonable, or that one cannot or should not try 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."

Many people are confused by the meaning of "have" and "eat" in the order as used here, although still understand the proverb and its intent and use it in this form. Some people feel the above form of the proverb is incorrect and illogical and instead prefer: "You can't eat your cake and [then still] have it too", which is in fact closer to the original form of the proverb[2] (see further explanations below) but uncommon today. Another variant uses "keep" instead of "have".[3]

Having to choose whether to have or eat your cake illustrates the concept of trade-offs or opportunity cost.[4][5][6]



The order of the clauses in the saying has been the subject of some debate, and was even used in forensic linguistics (contributing to the identification and arrest of the so-called Unabomber).[7]

An early recording of the phrase is in a letter on 14 March 1538 from Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, to Thomas Cromwell, as "a man can not have his cake and eat his cake".[8]

The phrase occurs with the clauses reversed in John Heywood's "A dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue" from 1546, as "wolde you bothe eate your cake, and have your cake?".[9] In John Davies's "Scourge of Folly" of 1611, the same order is used, as "A man cannot eat his cake and haue it stil."[10] In Jonathan Swift's 1738 farce "Polite Conversation", the character Lady Answerall says "she cannot eat her cake and have her cake".[11]

The order was reversed again in a posthumous adaptation of "Polite Conversation" in 1749, "Tittle Tattle; or, Taste A-la-Mode", as "And she cannot have her Cake and eat her Cake".[12][13][14] From 1812 (R. C. Knopf's "Document Transcriptions of War of 1812" (1959) VI. 204) is a modern-sounding recording of "We cannot have our cake and eat it too."[15]

According to the Google Ngram Viewer, the eat-first order was more common until about 1935, since which time the have-first order has become much more popular.[16]

Literal meaningEdit

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." Professor 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).[17]

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".[18]

In English, "have" can mean "eat", as in "Let's have breakfast" or "I'm having a sandwich". So the saying "You can't have your cake and eat it too" may mean that you can't eat the cake and then eat it again; or less metaphorically, that what you want is unreasonable. This interpretation makes sense in both the "have-eat" and "eat-have" iterations of the idiom, and might explain why the earliest known iteration is "have-eat".[original research?]

Comedian Billy Connolly takes light of the literal meaning with this phrase in his spiel "14 Things I Hate", by responding "What good is a cake if you can't eat it?"[19]

Other languagesEdit

Various expressions are used to convey similar idioms in other languages:

  • Albanian: Të hysh në ujë e të mos lagesh. – To take a swim and not get wet.
  • Bulgarian: Не може и вълкът да е сит, и агнето цяло. – You can't have both the wolf fed, and the lamb intact.
  • Bosnian: Ne možeš imati i jare i pare. – You can't have both the lamb and the money.
  • Simplified Chinese: 鱼与熊掌,不可兼得。; traditional Chinese: 魚與熊掌,不可兼得。 – You can't have both the fish and the bear's paw. (Bear's paw is considered a delicacy in ancient China.)
  • Croatian: Ne možeš imati i ovce i novce – You can't have both the sheep (pl.) and the money. Also, I vuk sit, ovce na broju – The wolf is full, and the sheep are all accounted for.
  • Czech: Nejde sedět zadkem na dvou židlích – You can't sit on two chairs at the same time. Also, Vlk se nažral a koza zůstala celá. - The wolf ate and the goat remained whole.
  • Danish: Man kan ikke både blæse og have mel i munden – You cannot both blow and have flour in your mouth. Or Danish: Man kan ikke få både i pose og (i) sæk - You can't get both in bag and (in) sack.
  • Dutch: There is no exact equivalent of this proverb in the Dutch language, but a similar phrase is Kiezen of delenChoose or divide. Another similar proverb is Van twee walletjes eten – "Eating from two banks [of the ditch]", a pejorative saying which means that someone joins two opposing parties and tries to benefit from the situation in a manipulative or opportunistic fashion.[20]. There is also the less derogatory expression de kool en de geit sparen (save the cabbage and the goat) for trying to satisfy conflicting demands of two parties.
  • French: Vouloir le beurre et l'argent du beurre – To want the butter and the money from (selling) the butter. The idiom can be emphasized by adding et le sourire de la crémière ("and a smile from the [female] shopkeeper") or, on its more familiar version, et le cul de la crémière ("and the [female] shopkeeper's butt").
  • Finnish: Kakkuja ei voi sekä syödä että säästää. – Cakes can not be both eaten and stored (at the same time).
  • German: Wasch mir den Pelz, aber mach mich nicht nass – Wash my fur but don't get me wet.[21][22] Also, Man kann nicht auf zwei Hochzeiten tanzen – One cannot dance at two weddings (at the same time).[23][24]
    • Swiss German: Du chasch nit dr Füfer und s Weggli ha – You can't have the five cent coin and a bread roll.
  • Greek: Και την πίτα ολόκληρη και τον σκύλο χορτάτο – You want the entire pie and the dog full.
  • Gujarati: બે હાથમાં લાડુ હોવા - To have a laddu (a sweet candy) in both of your hands.
  • Hebrew: אי אפשר לאכול את העוגה ולהשאיר אותה שלמה‎ – You can't eat the cake and keep it whole. Also, אי אפשר להחזיק את המקל משני הקצוות – It is impossible to hold the stick from both ends.
  • Hindi: दोनों हाथ में लड्डू होना – To have a laddu (a sweet candy) in both of your hands. चित भी मेरी पट भी मेरी. – Heads are mine and tails are mine too.
  • Hungarian: Olyan nincs, hogy a kecske is jóllakjon, és a káposzta is megmaradjon – It is impossible that the goat has enough to eat and the cabbage remains as well. Also, Egy fenékkel nem lehet két lovat megülni – It is impossible to ride two horses with one backside. Nem lehet egyszerre házaséletet is élni és szűznek is maradni. - It is not possible to go to the wedding bed and still remain a virgin.
  • Icelandic: Það er ekki hægt að bæði halda og sleppa – You can't have and have not at the same time. Also: Bágt er að blása og hafa mjöl í munni. – You cannot both blow and have flour in your mouth.
  • Italian: Volere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca – To want the barrel full and the wife drunk.
  • Kannada: ಅಕ್ಕಿ ಮೇಲೆ ಆಸೆ, ನೆಂಟರ ಮೇಲೆ ಪ್ರೀತಿ – Desire over rice, love over relatives.
  • Korean: 두 마리 토끼를 잡을 수 없다 – You can't catch two rabbits (at the same time).
  • Malayalam: കക്ഷത്തിലുള്ളത് പോകാനും പാടില്ല ഉത്തരത്തിലുള്ളത് വേണം താനും! – You want both the one on the roof, and the one in your armpit.
  • Nepali: दुवै हातमा लड्डु – To have a laddu (a sweet candy) in both of your hands.
  • Norwegian: Man kan ikke få både i pose og sekk – You can't get both in bag and sack.
  • Papiamento: There is no equivalent of this proverb in Papiamento, but a similar phrase is: Skohe of lag'i skohe – Choose or let choose.
  • Pashto: Dawara ghaaray ma wahaa‎ – You can not be on both sides.
  • Persian: هم خدا را خواستن و هم خرما را‎ – Wanting both God and the sugar-dates.
  • Polish: Zjeść ciastko i mieć ciastko – To eat the cookie and have the cookie.
  • Portuguese: Querer ter sol na eira e chuva no nabal – Wanting the sun to shine on the threshing floor, while it rains on the turnip field.
  • Romanian: Nu poți împăca și capra și varza – You can't reconcile the goat and the cabbage. Also, Și cu tigaia unsă și cu slănina în pod - To have the pan greased and the lard in the attic (or the more vulgar version: Şi cu dânsa-ntr-însa, şi cu sufletu-n rai – To have 'it' in 'it' and the soul in heaven.)
  • Russian: И рыбку съесть, и в воду не лезть – Wanting to eat a fish without first catching it from the waters. This is a euphemism for a common vulgar expression и рыбку съесть, и на хуй сесть, first used by Alexander Pushkin in a private letter.
  • Serbian: Не можеш да имаш и јаре и паре – You can't have both goatling and money, and Не можеш седети на две столице – You can't sit on two chairs.
  • Spanish: Querer estar en misa y en procesión – Wishing to be both at mass and in the procession. Also: Estar en misa y repicando (or Estar en misa y tocar la campana) – To be both at mass and in the bell tower, ringing the bells.
    • Argentina: La chancha y los veinte. – The pig and the twenties. This comes from the old piggy banks for children that used to contain coins of 20 cents. The only way to get the coins was to break the piggy bank open – hence the phrase. This can be emphasized by adding y la máquina de hacer chorizos – and the machine to make sausage.
  • Swedish: Att äta kakan och ha den kvar. – To eat the cookie and still have it.
  • Tamil: மீசைக்கும் ஆசை கூழுக்கும் ஆசை – Desire to have both the moustache and to drink the porridge.
  • Template:Lang-fp - P*tang Ina, Asan na tsinelas ko!?
  • Telugu: అమ్మ కావాలి బువ్వ కావాలి అంటే సాధ్యం కాదు – You cannot have both mother and food. (Traditionally mother makes food in the household).
  • Turkish: Ne yardan geçer, ne serden. – Neither giving up one's lover nor one's self.
  • Vietnamese: Được cái này mất cái kia. – You gain one thing but lose the other.
  • Welsh: Allwch chi mo’i chael hi bob ffordd. – You can’t have it all ways. Also, Allwch chi ddim cadw torth a’i bwyta hi – You can’t keep a loaf and eat it.[25]


  1. ^ "Definition of cake in English". Oxford Dictionaries.
  2. ^ Ngram Viewer (two variants). Google.
  3. ^ Ngram Viewer (four variants). Google.
  4. ^ Fitzpatrick, John R (2006-06-15). John Stuart Mill's Political Philosophy: Balancing Freedom and the Collective Good. p. 154. ISBN 9781847143440.
  5. ^ Fullbrook, Edward (2008-10-21). Ontology and Economics: Tony Lawson and His Critics. p. 17. ISBN 9780203888773.
  6. ^ Suits, Daniel Burbidge (1973). Principles of economics. p. 49. ISBN 9780060465285.
  7. ^ "Language Log: Forensic linguistics, the Unabomber, and the etymological fallacy". Retrieved 2013-05-20.
  8. ^ Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 13 Part 1: January-July 1538 (p. 189 ref. 504). Institute of Historical Research ("Sponsor").
  9. ^ "cake". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  10. ^ Shapiro, Fred R (2006). The Yale Book of Quotations. ISBN 9780300107982.
  11. ^ Swift, Jonathan (1841). The Works of Jonathan Swift ...: Containing interesting and valuable papers.
  12. ^ Timothy Fribble (Pseud.), Jonathan Swift (1749). Tittle Tattle.
  13. ^ Zimmer, Ben. "Have Your Cake and Eat It Too". The New York Times.
  14. ^ Perry, Toni. "Eat/Have, Have/Eat Your Cake!". ABLE Innovations Blog. Archived from the original on 2015-06-01.
  15. ^ Speake, Jennifer (2008). " A Dictionary of Proverbs. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199539536.
  16. ^ Graph at Google Ngram Viewer
  17. ^ Common Errors in English: Eat Cake. Washington State University.
  18. ^ Volk, Katharina (2002). The Poetics of Latin Didactic. Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid, Manilius. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-924550-9.
  19. ^ Connolly, Billy. "Billy Connolly's 14 things I hate about everybody". Owens World.
  20. ^ "Van twee walletjes eten". Onze Taal (in Dutch).
  21. ^ "Wasch mir den Pelz, aber mach mich nicht nass". Wörterbuch.
  22. ^ "Wasch mir den Pelz aber mach mich nicht nass".
  23. ^ "Man kann nicht auf zwei Hochzeiten tanzen". Wörterbuch.
  24. ^ "Man kann nicht auf zwei Hochzeiten tanzen".
  25. ^ Griffiths, Bruce; Jones, Dafydd Glyn (1995). Geiriadur yr Academi: The Welsh Academy English–Welsh Dictionary. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. p. 191. ISBN 9780708311868.

External linksEdit

  •   The dictionary definition of have one's cake and eat it too at Wiktionary
  • Post at "The Phrase Finder", quoting Wise Words and Wives' Tales: The Origins, Meanings and Time-Honored Wisdom of Proverbs and Folk Sayings Olde and New and The Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings.