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 possession of a cake and eat it, too". Once the cake is eaten, it is gone. It can be used to say that one cannot have two incompatible things, or that one should not try to have more than is reasonable. 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."

For those unfamiliar with it, the proverb may sound confusing due to the ambiguity of the word 'have', which can mean 'keep' or 'to have in one's possession', but which can also be used as a synonym for 'eat' (e.g. 'to have breakfast'). Some find the common form of the proverb to be incorrect or illogical and instead prefer: "You can't eat your cake and [then still] have it (too)". Indeed, this used to be the most common form of the expression until the 1930s–1940s, when it was overtaken by the have-eat variant.[2] Another, less common, version uses 'keep' instead of 'have'.[3]

Choosing between having and eating a cake illustrates the concept of trade-offs or opportunity cost.[4][5][6]

History and usageEdit

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".[7] 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?".[8][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 in a posthumous adaptation of "Polite Conversation" in 1749 called "Tittle Tattle; or, Taste A-la-Mode", as "And she cannot have her Cake and eat her Cake".[12][13][14] A modern-sounding variant from 1812, "We cannot have our cake and eat it too", can be found in R. C. Knopf's Document Transcriptions of the War of 1812 (1959).[15]

According to Google Ngram Viewer, a search engine that charts the frequencies of phrases throughout the decades, the eat-have order used to be the most common variant (at least in written form) before being surpassed by the have-eat version in the 1930s and 40s.[2]

In 1996, the eat-have variant played a role in the apprehension of the Unabomber, whose real name is Ted Kaczynski. In his manifesto, which the terrorist sent to newspapers in the wake of his bombings, Kaczynski advocated the undoing of the industrial revolution, writing: "As for the negative consequences of eliminating industrial society — well, you can’t eat your cake and have it too." James R. Fitzgerald, an FBI forensic linguist, noted this (then) uncommon variant of the proverb and later discovered that Kaczynski had also used it in a letter to his mother. This, among other clues, led to his identification and arrest.[16][17][18]

In her 2002 book, classicist Katharina Volk of Columbia University used the phrase to describe the development of poetic imagery in didactic Latin poetry, naming the principle behind the imagery's adoption and application the "have-one's-cake-and-eat-it-too principle".[19]


The proverb, while commonly used, is at times questioned by people who feel the expression to be illogical or incorrect. As comedian Billy Connolly once put it: "What good is [having] a cake if you can't eat it?"[20] According to Paul Brians, Professor of English at Washington State University, the confusion about the idiom stems from the verb to have, which can refer to possessing, but also to eating, e.g. "Let's have breakfast" or "I'm having a sandwich". Brians argues that "You can't eat your cake and have it too" is a more logical variant than "You can't have your cake and eat it too", because the verb-order of "eat-have" makes more sense: once you've eaten your cake, you don't have it anymore.[21]

Ben Zimmer, writing for the Language Log of the University of Pennsylvania, states that the interpretation of the two variants relies on the assumption of either sequentiality or simultaneity. If one believes the phrase to imply sequentiality, then the "eat-have" variant could be seen as a more logical form: you cannot eat your cake and then (still) have it, but you actually can have your cake and then eat it. The former phrase would demonstrate an impossibility better, while the latter phrase is more of a statement of fact, arguably making it less suitable as an idiomatic proverb. However, if one believes the "and" conjoining the verbs to imply simultaneity of action rather than sequentiality of action, then both versions are usable as an idiom, because "cake-eating and cake-having are mutually exclusive activities, regardless of the syntactic ordering", Zimmer writes.[18]

In response, Richard Mason disagreed with Zimmer's assertion on the mutually exclusiveness of the two actions: "simultaneous cake-having and cake-eating are NOT mutually exclusive. On the contrary, generally I cannot eat something at any time when I do not have it. But I eat things when I have them all the time. Only when the object is entirely consumed do I no longer have it (and at that time the eating is also terminated)." Therefore, Mason considers the "have-eat" variant to be "logically indefensible".[22] Zimmer reacted to Mason by stating: "the 'having' part of the idiom seems to me to imply possession over a long period of time, rather than the transient cake-having that occurs during cake-eating". He concludes that it is ultimately not relevant to ponder over the logicality of crystallized, commonly used phrases. "Few people protest the expression head over heels to mean 'topsy-turvy,' despite the fact that its "literal" reading describes a normal, non-topsy-turvy bodily alignment".[18]

Stan Carey, writing for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, likens the "have-eat" vs. "eat-have" question with the discussion over "I could care less" and "I couldn't care less", two phrases that are used to refer to the same thing yet are construed differently, the former sounding illogical because saying "I could care less" would mean that you actually do care to some degree. Carey writes that even though the "eat-have" form of the cake-proverb might make more sense, "idioms do not hinge on logic, and expecting them to make literal sense is futile. But it can be hard to ward off the instinctive wish that language align better with common sense." Carey jokingly states that the cake-idiom actually does have its cake and eats it.[23]

In 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.
  • Armenian: Գելը կուշտ, ոչխարները՝ տեղը: – Have the wolf full and the sheep in place. Երկու երնեկ մի տեղ չի լինում - Two good things do not happen together. Մի տոմսով երկու թատրոն - One ticket for two theatrical performances (This idiom is also used for a situation of an undesired scandalous consequence of an action). Գետը մտնես՝ չոր էլնես - Get into a river and stay dry. And a vulgar version: Համ բանը տեղը լինի, համ չբեր լինի: - Her to be sexually active but sterile.
  • Azerbaijani: Nə yardan doyur, nə əldən qoyur. – One who neither agrees, nor disagrees. (literal translation: Neither loves their lover enough, nor lets them go.)[24]
  • Bulgarian: Не може и вълкът да е сит, и агнето цяло. – You can't have both the wolf fed, and the lamb intact. A more vulgar version is: Не може хем душата в рая, хем кура в гъза. – You can't have both the dick in the ass and the soul in heaven.[25] This phrase is similar to the Romanian expression below.
  • 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.)
  • 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. Also, 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.[26] A less derogatory expression is De kool en de geit sparen – To save both the cabbage and the goat: attempting to satisfy conflicting demands of two parties, while not trying to offend either.[27] Another one is: Je kunt je geld maar één keer uitgeven – "You can spend your money only one time".
  • Finnish: Kakkuja ei voi sekä syödä että säästää. – Cakes can not be both eaten and stored (at the same time).
  • French: Vouloir le beurre et l'argent du beurre – To want the butter and the money used to buy the butter. This proverb can be emphasized by adding et le sourire de la crémière ("and a smile from the [female] milkmaid") or, in a more familiar version, et le cul de la crémière ("and the [female] milkmaid's butt"). Similar to the Dutch, Hungarian and Romanian expressions: Ménager la chèvre et le chou – To spare the goat and the cabbage: attempting to satisfy conflicting demands of two parties, while not trying to offend either.
  • German: Wasch mir den Pelz, aber mach mich nicht nass – Wash my fur but don't get me wet.[28][29] Also, Man kann nicht auf zwei Hochzeiten tanzen – One cannot dance at two weddings (at the same time).[30][31]
    • Swiss German: Du chasch nit dr Füfer und s Weggli ha – You can't have the five cent coin and a bread roll. Or "Du chasch nöd de Foifer, Weggli und Bäckerstochter ha" - You can't have the 5 cent coin, a bread roll and the baker's daughter.
  • 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. Also, 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 to feed the goat but keep the cabbage. Also, Egy fenékkel nem lehet két lovat megülni – You can't ride two horses with one backside. Also, Nem lehet egyszerre házaséletet is élni és szűznek is maradni. – You can't consummate the marriage yet 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 (of wine) and the wife drunk.
  • Japanese: 二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず. – If you chase two rabbits at the same time, you will not catch either.
  • Kannada: ಅಕ್ಕಿ ಮೇಲೆ ಆಸೆ, ನೆಂಟರ ಮೇಲೆ ಪ್ರೀತಿ – Desire over rice, love over relatives.
  • Korean: 토끼 둘을 잡으려다가 하나도 못 잡는다. – If you try to catch two rabbits, you will end up getting none.
  • Malayalam: കക്ഷത്തിലുള്ളത് പോകാനും പാടില്ല ഉത്തരത്തിലുള്ളത് വേണം താനും! – Don't want to lose what's in the armpit but also want what's on the beam (or roof).
  • 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 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.
    • Brazil: Assobiar e chupar cana - Wanting to whistle and suck on sugar cane (at the same time).
  • 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. A more vulgar version is: Şi cu dânsa-intr-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 – Wanting to both eat a fish and to sit on a dick. This phrase was first used by Alexander Pushkin in a private letter.
  • Serbo-Croatian: Imati i jare i pare, Имати и јаре и паре – To have both lamb and money. Also, I ovce i novce, И овце и новце - Both the sheep and the money. Also, I vuk sit i ovce na broju, И вук сит и овце на броју – The wolf is full, and the sheep are all accounted for.
  • 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.
    • An alternative idiom in Spanish would be No se puede estar al plato y a las tajadas - You can't pay attention to the plate and to the slices.
    • 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 cake and still have it.
  • Tamil: மீசைக்கும் ஆசை கூழுக்கும் ஆசை – Desire to have both the moustache and to drink the porridge.
  • Telugu: అమ్మ కావాలి బువ్వ కావాలి అంటే సాధ్యం కాదు – You cannot have both mother and food. (Traditionally, the mother prepares the food in the household.)
  • Tigrinya: ሰብኣይን ደሊኽን ፣ ጭሕምን ፀሊእኽን ። – You (a lady) wanted a man, but you hate the beard.
  • Turkish: Ne yardan geçer, ne serden. – Neither giving up one's lover nor one's self.
  • Urdu: ایک ٹکٹ میں دو مزے لینآ – Extract double privilege from a single ticket. Also, دو کشتی کا سوار کہیں نہیں جاتا - The rider of two ships doesn't get anywhere.
  • Ukrainian: На двох стільцях не всидиш – You can't sit on two chairs.
  • 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.[32]
  • Yoruba: Enikan ki je meji laba alade – You can't eat twice at the same time. Also, Óó pé láyé, ojú re ò nìí ribi, òkan lóó fowó mú – You can't live long, and don't want to witness bad occurrence. You've got to choose one.[33]


The expression “cakeism” and the associated noun and adjective “cakeist” have come into general use in British English, especially in political journalism, and have been accepted into English dictionaries.[34][35]

The expressions, which reverse the traditional proverb, refer to a wish to enjoy two desirable but incompatible alternatives, especially regarding the UK’s approach to Brexit negotiations and subsequent deliberations. It developed after comments made by the then UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson in 2016, that “I’ve never been an Outer.”[36] “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.”[37] Subsequently, as prime minister, he described the UK’s post-Brexit trade deal as a “cakeist treaty”.[38]

The neologisms have since become objects of derision and have led to sarcastic re-reversals.[39][40]


  1. ^ "Definition of cake in English". Oxford Dictionaries. Archived from the original on August 23, 2017.
  2. ^ a b Google Ngram graphs of "My cake", "Your cake", "His cake", "Her cake", "Our cake", and "Their cake".
  3. ^ Google Ngram graph of eat-have, have-eat, keep-eat, and eat-keep variants.
  4. ^ Fitzpatrick, John R (15 June 2006). John Stuart Mill's Political Philosophy: Balancing Freedom and the Collective Good. p. 154. ISBN 9781847143440.
  5. ^ Fullbrook, Edward (21 October 2008). 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. ^ Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 13 Part 1: January-July 1538 (p. 189 ref. 504). British History Online. Vol. 13. Institute of Historical Research. pp. 176–192.
  8. ^ Heywood, John (1546). A dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue. Vol. 13. pp. 176–192.
  9. ^ "Cake". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  10. ^ Shapiro, Fred R (2006). The Yale Book of Quotations. Yale University Press. p. 614. ISBN 9780300107982. “A man cannot eat his cake and haue it stil.”.
  11. ^ Swift, Jonathan (1841). The Works of Jonathan Swift ...: Containing interesting and valuable papers. p. 341.
  12. ^ Timothy Fribble (Pseud.), Jonathan Swift (1749). Tittle Tattle. p. 29.
  13. ^ Zimmer, Ben (18 February 2011). "Have Your Cake and Eat It Too". The New York Times.
  14. ^ Perry, Toni (14 April 2011). "Eat/Have, Have/Eat Your Cake!". ABLE Innovations Blog. Archived from the original on 1 June 2015.
  15. ^ Speake, Jennifer, ed. (2008). A Dictionary of Proverbs. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199539536.
  16. ^ Fitzgerald, James R. (2004). "Chapter 14: Using a Forensic Linguistic Approach to Track the Unabomber". In Campbell, John H.; DeNevi, Don (eds.). Profilers: Leading Investigators Take You Inside The Criminal Mind. Prometheus Books. pp. 205–206. ISBN 9781591022664.
  17. ^ Geracimos, Ann (12 January 2006). "CSI: Language analysis unit". The Washington Times. Retrieved 19 November 2022.
  18. ^ a b c Zimmer, Benjamin (14 January 2006). "Language Log: Forensic linguistics, the Unabomber, and the etymological fallacy". Language Log.
  19. ^ Volk, Katharina (2002). The Poetics of Latin Didactic. Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid, Manilius. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-924550-9.
  20. ^ Connolly, Billy. "Billy Connolly's 14 things I hate about everybody". John Jokes. Retrieved 19 November 2022.
  21. ^ Brians, Paul (19 May 2016). "Common Errors in English: Eat Cake". Washington State University. Retrieved 19 November 2022.
  22. ^ Mason, Richard (20 January 2006). "Comment on Having Your Cake and Eating It Too". Tales of the Golem; or, the Modern Epimetheus. Retrieved 19 November 2022.
  23. ^ Carey, Stan (30 September 2013). "An idiom that has its cake and eats it". Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Retrieved 19 November 2022.
  24. ^ "Nə yardan doyur, nə əldən qoyur". AzLeks (in Azerbaijani). Retrieved 19 November 2022.
  25. ^ "хем душата в рая, хем кура в гъза | - речника на улицата". BG Jargon (in Bulgarian). 19 December 2016. Retrieved 19 November 2022.
  26. ^ "Van twee walletjes eten". Onze Taal (in Dutch). 11 May 2011. Retrieved 19 November 2022.
  27. ^ "De kool en de geit sparen". Onze Taal (in Dutch). 8 April 2011. Retrieved 19 November 2022.
  28. ^ "Wasch mir den Pelz, aber mach mich nicht nass". Wörterbuch (in German). Retrieved 19 November 2022.
  29. ^ "Wasch mir den Pelz aber mach mich nicht nass". (in German). Retrieved 19 November 2022.
  30. ^ "Man kann nicht auf zwei Hochzeiten tanzen". Wörterbuch (in German). Retrieved 19 November 2022.
  31. ^ "Man kann nicht auf zwei Hochzeiten tanzen". (in German). Retrieved 19 November 2022.
  32. ^ Griffiths, Bruce; Jones, Dafydd Gly (1995). Geiriadur yr Academi: The Welsh Academy English–Welsh Dictionary (in Welsh). Cardiff, Wales: University of Wales Press. p. 191. ISBN 9780708311868.
  33. ^ Bello-Olówóòkéré, G.A.B. (2004). Ẹgbẹ̀rún ìjìnlẹ̀ òwe Yorùbá : àti ìtumọ̀ wọn ní èdè gẹ̀ẹ́sì [1000 Yoruba proverbs and their translations in English]. Lagos, Nigeria: Concept Publication. ISBN 9789788065203. OCLC 607738697.
  34. ^ "cakeism". Cambridge Dictionary. Cambridge University Press.
  35. ^ "cakeism". Collins English Dictionary. HarperCollins Publishers.
  36. ^ White, Michael (22 February 2016). "No Boris, you can't have your Brexit cake and eat it too". The Guardian.
  37. ^ Cohen, Nick (12 July 2022). "Cakeism is Boris Johnson's true legacy". The Spectator.
  38. ^ "Post-Brexit trade: UK having its cake and eating it, says Boris Johnson". BBC News. BBC. 30 December 2020.
  39. ^ Musolff, Andreas (13 February 2020). "Having cake and eating it: how a hyperbolic metaphor framed Brexit". LSE Research Online. London School of Economics.
  40. ^ Musolff, Andreas (1 October 2020). "Can political rhetoric ever be "too persuasive"? The combination of proverb and hyperbole in the case of having the cake and eating it". Jezikoslovlje. 21 (3): 285–303. doi:10.29162/jez.2020.9. S2CID 243389533.

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.