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Posts Tagged ‘Gwendolen Fitzalan-Howard’

You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It

Posted by Admin on May 29, 2021

When it’s not possible to have two good things at the same time, especially two things that aren’t possible to have together, people usually say you can’t have your cake and eat it. The idiom is an example of the price that opportunity throws into any situation, and underscores that you cannot both have and not have something at the same time.

The expression has been around for generations, and for this reason, Idiomation chose to jump back about 150 year to see if it was used back then. We weren’t surprise to find it in a number of places.

On 28 April 1872, English art critic, watercolorist, author, poet, and philosopher John Ruskin (8 February 1819 – 20 January 1900) wrote a letter to his friends that began with questions about the Pope blessing the marriage of the Marquis of Bute, John Crichton-Stuart (12 September 1847 – 9 October 1900) to his romantically and politically beloved Duchess of Norfolk, Gwendolen Fitzalan-Howard (21 February 1854 – 15 January 1932). In his letter, he wrote:

Abstinence may, indeed, have its reward, nevertheless; but not by increase of what we abstain from, unless there be a law of growth for it, unconnected without abstinence. “You cannot have your cake and eat it.” Of course not; and if you don’t eat it, you have your cake; but not a cake and a half!

The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent newspaper of h, South Yorkshire (England) devoted a large swath of space in the 17 April 1872 edition to report on the wedding that had taken place the day previous, and wedding guests. The wedding was by all accounts a large and fancy affair with Archbishop Monsignor Capel, Father Stanton, Father Gordon, and six other officiating clergymen required to perform the ceremony.

To add to the pomp of the occasion, the reporter listed the music performed in the Oratory, the composers of each piece — ranging from Gounod to Chopin — as well as the soloists and the conductor, Herr Schulthes. The names of members of the nobility who attended the wedding breakfast was also included which, as you can imagine, took up a considerable amount of space as well. Some of the weddings gifts (and the names of those who were responsible for those gifts) were also included in the article.

English naturalist and botanist, John Ray (29 November 1627 – 17 January 1705) included the idiom — albeit switched around — in his book, “A Complete Collection of Proverbs” published in 1742 as:

You can’t eat your cake, and have your cake.

The idiom was found in the “Dictionarium Brittanicum Or A More Compleat Universal Etymological English Dictionary Than Any Extant” by English teacher, philologist and lexicographer Nathan Bailey (c. 1691 – 27 June 1742) published in 1730.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: In his dictionary, Nathan Baily was the first to include the origin of words from Hebrew, Greek, and Latin; advice on pronounciation; hard and technical words found in the arts, sciences, and mysteries; and dialect, slang, and taboo words (something that was left out of most dictionaries until well into the 19th century).

In Anglo-Welsh poet John Davies (c. 1565 – 1 July 1618) of Hereford’s book, “The Scourge of Folly. Consisting of satyricall Epigramms, and others in honor of many noble and worthy Persons of our Land Together with a pleasant (though discordant) Descant vpon most English Prouerbes: and others” published in 1611, the proverb was written in two parts.

A man cannot eat his cake and have it still;
That may he, unless his retention be ill.

English playwright, poet, and writer John Heywood (c. 1565 – July 1618) included it in his book “A dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue” published in 1546 with this variation:

What man, I trowe [= believe] ye rave.
Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and have your cake?

The question as to whether someone could have their cake and eat it was asked in a letter from Tudor politician and nobleman Thomas Howard (c. 1473 – 25 August 1554), 3rd Duke of Norfolk, to Thomas Cromwell (c. 1485 – 28 July 1540), 1st Earl of Essex, and chief minister and advisor to King Henry VIII of England, on 14 March 1538. In his letter, Thomas Howard wrote:

The great sickness continues here, and I am banished by it from my two “starting holes,” Catellacre and Bongaye. I require you to send me, by this bearer, my will, which ye have sealed in a box. I must alter things therein, for my substance in money and plate is not so good now — a man can not have his cake and eat his cake. You thought you knew who would buy my manor of Walton, that was of the house of Lewes, at 40 years’ purchase, let me know his name and prick him to conclude for it. I am forced to sell muchland for lack of money, and divers are on hand with me to buy, with whome I would not meddle if I might sell Walton after that price.

Interestingly enough, an expanded version of the idiom is found in the spirit of the French idiom.

On ne peut pas avoir le beurre, l’argent du beurre, et la sourire de la crémière.
You cannot have the butter, the money from the sale of the butter, and the milkmaid’s attentions.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: While the English idiom uses what was a luxury item back in the day, the French idiom uses what was a commodity during that same time period.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier reference to someone having their cake and eating it (or not eating it) prior to the letter to Thomas Cromwell from Thomas Howard, placing this idiom squarely in 1538.

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