What Does Have Your Cake and Eat It Too Mean?

Have you ever really wanted to do something or to have something happen, shared as much with a friend or family member, and heard in return: “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” Did you know what they meant? Whether they were supporting your wish or being unsupportive of your desire? Let’s explore the meaning of this common idiomatic and proverbial English expression.

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What Does Have Your Cake and Eat It Too Mean?

The saying have your cake and eat it, too is used to express that when there are two desirable but mutually exclusive or contradictory options, you can’t have both at the same time. Instead, you have to make a choice between them. That’s why you’ll typically hear or see the phrase used as it was to start this post: preceded by “you can’t.” You may also hear the phrase or see it written as have your cake and eat it, with too omitted from the end—this usage occurs most often in British English. Note that the expression can be written with or without a comma before too.

There is sometimes confusion over this idiom, as the word have can mean either “to possess” or “to eat,” as in “have breakfast.” This saying uses the meaning “to possess,” and thus literally means “you can’t possess your cake and also eat it.” While some argue over whether this is true or not (see below), think about it: Once you eat a piece of cake, it is gone and no longer in your possession. In other words, you can’t eat a cake and also keep a cake. Hence, the figurative meaning of the expression: You can’t have two good but conflicting, incompatible things at the same time.

Many linguistic historians, including Ben Zimmer, have commented that the saying makes more sense and elicits less confusion when its words are reversed, as in you can’t eat cake and have it or you can’t eat your cake and have it, too. (Zimmer wrote a popular article about this in The New York Times.) Indeed, it appears this was the most common order of the expression at one point in time; keep reading for much more about its history.

Another way to think of the proverb is as a synonym for the familiar sayings you can’t have it both ways and you can’t have the best of both worlds. The phrase can also be used to express that a person shouldn’t try to have more than is reasonable or more than their fair share.

Here are some example sentences using the idiom have your cake and eat it, too:

  • I know you enjoy dining at fancy restaurants and learning about food by tasting delicious gourmet dishes, but you’re never going to save enough money to put yourself through culinary school if you don’t stop going out. You know what they say: You can’t have your cake and eat it, too!
  • My girlfriend and I really want a house with a lot of land and only a few neighbors that’s also super close to everything in town. On our last house-hunting outing, our frustrated realtor turned to us and said, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” 
  • I wish it wasn’t true that you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. I love living with my mom because she does my laundry and cooks my meals, but I also want my own space and privacy.
  • When I was little, I was attached to my piggy bank and wanted to keep it on my shelf, but I also wanted to get the money out of it for a toy. It was an old-fashioned kind that had to be broken in order for the money to be retrieved. That was when I first learned you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. 

The Expression’s Rich History

It’s suggested the phrase was first printed either in 1538, in a letter from the Duke of Norfolk to Thomas Cromwell, or in 1546, in A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue: Compacte in a Matter Concernyng Two Maner of Mariages by playwright John Heywood. In the latter, Heywood writes:

Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?”

As his book was published in the Early Modern period of the English language, the excerpt might be a bit difficult to read. However, you can see that, as mentioned above, this early use reversed the order of have and eat, with eat coming first in the phrase.

It seems this order of the expression remained common for quite some time after it was introduced—it is found in The Scourge of Folly by poet John Davies, likely printed in 1611, as well as in Jonathan Swift’s Polite Conversation, originally published in 1738. In fact, it may have remained the most popular version, at least in written form, up until the 1930s or 1940s.

Similar intriguing phrases have long been used in other languages to express the same idea. For example, a similar French saying translates roughly to “you can’t have the butter and the money to buy the butter.” An Albanian proverb says that “you can’t swim and not get wet,” while a German saying states that “you can’t dance at two different weddings at the same time.” The Wikipedia entry on the expression have your cake and eat it, too shares many more examples from other languages.

Understanding Idioms and Proverbs

Have your cake and eat it, too is both an idiom and a proverb. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that typically can’t fully be understood just by looking at the individual words that comprise it. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

As mentioned at the start of this article, the expression can be quite confusing when read literally, especially if you understand “have” to mean “eat.” You can’t eat your cake and eat it, too would be rather repetitive and silly! Linguists have long argued if the saying really makes any sense at all, with some concluding that you can actually have your cake and eat it simultaneously; that you must have it or possess it in order to eat it. Others remark on how pointless it is to assess the logic of the phrase. It is an idiom, after all. And when it comes to idioms, it’s important to remember they have figurative meanings and to learn and know those meanings, versus trying to take them literally and dissect their definitions in this way.

A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Discover many more idioms and proverbs here.<H2>Summary<H2>
The well-known idiom and proverb have your cake and eat it, too is used to express that a person can’t have two desirable but incompatible things at the same time. As much as one may want both good outcomes, if they’re conflicting and mutually exclusive, one simply must make a choice between them.