Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Takes The Cake

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 8, 2013

Sometimes you’ll see people get to a point where they say that the latest takes the cake. Now they don’t literally mean that someone sneaked into their kitchen and made off with any baked goods that might have been on the counter. What they mean is that the most recent event is, in their opinion, more than they are willing or able to accept as fact. In other words, it’s an expression that states something or someone is unbelievable (in their behavior or attitude), incredible, or ridiculous.

When reviewer Anna Thompson wrote a piece on November 16, 2011 that compared the two major gaming consoles on the market, she did a comparison of the Sony PlayStation 3 and the Microsoft Xbox 360 … two gaming consoles that were at the heart of any serious gamer’s collection and discussions. The article imparted this information to those who were wondering which console would best suit their gaming needs.

When it comes to trust a console, the PS3 takes the cake again. The infamous Red Ring of Death (RROD) Xbox 360 is something that every player dreads and it is amazing how so many people still complain about this problem. The PS3 also suffers from problems once in a while, but there is no lack of such debilitating and notorious RROD, that can affect it.

The Pittsburg Press published an intriguing article on July 26, 1966 about the upcoming nuptials for Luci Baines Johnson. The Scripps-Howard Staff Writer shared with readers that the bride would be wearing something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in her show at her wedding to Patrick Nugent on August 6. The wedding was to be an elaborate affair, and the honeymoon was described as something most young brides never experience as she would be accompanied by three Secret Service agents. The wedding cake was discussed in some detail and the article ended with a question: If it takes five egg whites to make enough cake for 10 people, then multiply 5 by 75 which comes out to 375 egg whites, what in the world is the White House going to do with 375 egg yolks? The article was aptly entitled:

Luci’s Wedding Takes The Cake

Now back in the day, the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner was a well-read newspaper in Kent County, Rhode Island and in the February 7, 1902 edition, the reporter wrote about a certain celebrated London beauty who had been seen in several questionable dramatic productions over in England. While her career may have had a few bumps in the productions leading up to her appearance in America, she made waves once she arrived on American shores. So much so, in fact, that the reporter wrote this about the actress:

It is not what Mrs. Pat Campbell says or does that provokes the critics, but rather what she does not say or do. She is not a beauty, according to our American canons, but her dresses — oh my, my, my! — they are a revelation, a miracle of the costumer’s art, which would make Worth’s most splendid creation look like the blanket of a Hottentot. When you talk of style, Mrs. Campbell takes the cake and with it the entire bakery. There is no changing the hard, granite fact that she has caught the town, that her houses are packed and Mrs. Campbell and her manager are reaping a golden harvest.

American author, William Trotter Porter edited a book entitled, “A Quarter Race in Kentucky: And Other Sketches, Illustrative of Scenes, Characters, and Incidents, Throughout the Universal Yankee Nation,”  It was published in Philadelphia by T.B. Peterson and Brothers of Chestnut Street in 1847. In the story, “Old Tuttle’s Last Quarter Race” which was credited to “Buckeye” of Ohio. Whoever Buckeye was, and where in Ohio he lived,.  The story was originally published in the “Spirit Of The Times” in New York.  As the reader makes his way through the story, the following passage is found:

The result was, they got up a horse and fifty dollars in money a side, to run on Saturday at two o’clock, each one to start and ride his own horse, judge tops and bottoms — the winning horse takes the cakes — and no back out! Either party refusing to run forfeits the whole stakes.

Not to give away any part of the story, suffice it to say that the twists and turns in the story are both hilarious and well thought out, and as such, should you happen across a copy of this book, I highly recommend you read this story first. You’ll understand why when you reach the last page.

In any case, over the centuries, there have been many instances where the phrase has been used in one form or another, but the earliest version surprised Idiomation … a reference that took the idiom all the way back to Ancient Greece!

For those who don’t know, in Ancient Greece, a cake was the prize at drinking parties for the man who kept awake all night. “The Knights” written by comic Greek playwright and poet, Aristophanes (446 BC – 386 BC), was presented at the Lenaean festival in February 424 BC. Although the play was one that was political in nature, ridiculing policies and legislation, it did, indeed, make use of the phrase in this way:

If in bawling you defeat him,
sing we ho! for Victory’s sake.
If in shamelessness you beat him,
then indeed we take the cake.

The audacity of it all would lead to the group taking the cake, and as it were, this play certainly plays out in a most outrageous way through to the end. That being said, the expression dates back to 424 BC thanks to Aristophanes!

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2 Responses to “Takes The Cake”

  1. Heather said

    I liked this! Literally (by clicking like) and because I feel that way too.

    Anyway–The way I heard the phrase come about is that it originated in the slave’s day here in the US (of course, we think it all starts and ends with us, yeah?)– that when the slaves were done working for the day, they were allowed some portions for themselves of various ingredients. Once a week, using the leftovers of the house, they would bake a cake and the families and persons of the slave population on a given plantation would have a dance-off. Whoever danced the best, took the cake home with them and that’s how the phrase came to mean “This is the best”.

    I don’t know if that story is true or not though because I wasn’t there. I have always wondered though. That and along with “Jump the broom” also having the same type of roots–it’s how slaves married each other–they couple would literally jump over a broom during the ceremony.

    • Thanks, Heather.

      As to the explanation you’ve heard about the origins of this idiom, while it’s a commonly repeated explanation, it’s incorrect. While it’s true that there were dances such as the one you described, and while it’s true that the winner of those dances won a cake, this practice is what gave rise to the expression “it’s a cakewalk.”

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