For PM, cake becomes thorn in the proverbial

‘Have cake and eat it’: If this is the plan for Brexit what other proverbs might come in handy?

Starved of detail about Britain’s plan to leave the EU, journalists have made much of a phrase in some notes snapped outside Number 10. But what does ‘have cake and eat it’ really mean?

Steve Back has made a career out of hanging around Downing Street with a long lens camera. Time and again, he has helped to break national news stories by waiting for careless aides to walk by with uncovered documents, and then zooming in.

Yesterday he got a corker: Theresa May’s government has been tight lipped on Britain’s strategy for leaving the EU. But Back photographed a notebook covered with handwritten scribbles on the subject.

The plan? To ‘have cake and eat it’. In other words, to reap the benefits of leaving the EU without the pitfalls. And while the government has denied that the notes mean anything, that did not stop newspapers from splashing the words across their front pages.

Of course, the irony is that the full proverb warns ministers against this approach: ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too’, it insists.

But why not? Surely the point of having cake is to eat it? In its musings on Brexit, the government has struck at one of the most perplexing proverbs of the English language.

It makes more sense in its original form, as quoted by John Davies in 1611: ‘A man cannot eat his cake and have it still.’ Once it’s gone it’s gone. In Russian, the phrase is ‘You can’t sit on two chairs,’ and in German ‘You can’t dance at two weddings.’ Like all proverbs, these are pithy ways of expressing wise advice: sometimes you can’t have everything you want.

By 1738, it had become such a cliché that Jonathan Swift included it in his satirical Polite Conversation. In an adaptation of that book, the words got flipped: ‘She cannot have her cake and eat her cake,’ says Lady Tattle.

This new form grew in popularity until it subsumed its predecessor. In the 1990s, it even helped to catch an anarchist bomber called Ted Kaczynski. He had been taught the correct form by his mother — so when his family read it in his anonymous manifesto, they realised who he was and informed the the FBI.

Proverbs may be useful for catching terrorists. But are they useful for anything else?

Piece of cake

Undoubtedly, say some. Proverbs are passed down through generations, often over hundreds of years. They connect us to the history and wisdom of our past. And although most languages have their own variations, they often have similar meanings — like the two chairs versus two weddings. This is because they tell us universal truths.

Rubbish, say others. Proverbs are not ‘clichés for a reason’, they are lazy and unoriginal. We should not become trapped by them just because our parents and teachers love to patronise us by repeating them. Instead we should follow Boris Johnson, whose ‘policy on cake’ is that he is ‘pro having it and pro eating it.’ And why shouldn’t he?

You Decide

  1. What is your favourite proverb?
  2. Do proverbs tell us anything useful?


  1. Re-write an old proverb, or create a new one, using references from the 21st century.
  2. Make your own notes about Brexit Britain six months after the referendum, inspired by one of the four proverbs in the cartoon above.

Some People Say...

“The wise make proverbs and fools repeat them.”

Isaac D’Israeli

What do you think?

Q & A

Why does the language matter — isn’t Brexit the real story?
The speculation over Brexit is the more obvious news story — especially as so little information has been revealed so far. But the language is worth examining too. The scrawled note about cake shows how deeply proverbs enter a culture’s consciousness, and this phrase is particularly interesting because it is so often misunderstood.
Okay… but what else did the notes say?
Oh go on then: they mused that negotiators were ‘very French’, and would be ‘difficult on article 50 implementation — Barnier [the lead EU negotiator] wants to see what deal looks like first.’ They admit that ‘it’s unlikely we’ll be offered single market’ and predict that a deal on manufacturing will be ‘relatively straightforward’; services will be ‘harder’.

Word Watch

It was being carried by an aide to the Conservative MP Mark Field. She was leaving 9 Downing Street, home of the department for exiting the EU.
For example: having control over policies like immigration to Britain from the EU, and guaranteeing the sovereignty of Britain’s supreme court.
For example: it will be extremely difficult to reduce immigration without leaving the single market, which many businesses depend on for trade.
John Davies
The writer included the proverb in The Scourge of Folly.
Jonathan Swift
The author was born in 1667 and died in 1745. Polite Conversation was a satirical guide to ‘Genteel and Ingenious Conversation’ filled with clichés . It was ‘adapted’ (or plagiarised) in a book called Tittle Tattle after Swift’s death.
According to Google, uses of have/eat overtook eat/have in 1940, then left the original ‘in the dust’.
Ted Kaczynski
A former mathematician, opposed to modern technology. Between 1978 and 1995, he sent bombs through the mail to prove his point, killing three people and injuring 23. He was also known as the ‘unabomber’.


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