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Ben Zimmer On Having And Eating Cake

Flickr Photo/Jeff Anderson

You can’t have your cake and eat it too, but how are you supposed to eat cake you don’t have? Language guru Ben Zimmer is back today and he explains the whole having, eating and not having cake thing. And what that has to do with how the Unabomber was captured. Really.

Sticky Language
Certain idioms stick around in the language even though they don't make much sense or follow nice logic. In the case of "you can't have your cake and eat it too," the more logical among us ask, "Wouldn't it make more sense if you flip that around?" You can't eat your cake and have it too, because once you eat it, it's not in front of you anymore.

In fact that is the original form of the expression. When English writers started compiling books of proverbs in the 16th century they used that form. The earliest example of the flipped version where the having comes before the eating comes in 1749.

So even though it took a couple centuries before it mutated, over time that version became more popular. But if we're going to re-interpret a proverb shouldn't we do it in a way that makes it more logical?

How Do You Define "And"?
But you can make this version make sense too. If you interpret the word "and" in the expression to mean a simultaneous occurrence of having and eating, then it makes sense. You can't do them at the same time. If you interpret "and" as a sequential occurrence, then it does not make sense.

The Unabomber
The FBI was able to pinpoint Ted Kaczynski, based in part, due to certain stylistic quirks in his manifesto. They consulted with Kaczynski's brother, David, who was familiar with the way Ted wrote.

Their mother taught them that it made more sense to say "you can't eat your cake and have it too" than "you can't have your cake and eat it too." It was the appearance of the phrase, along with other things in the manifesto, that led authorities to narrow it down to Kaczynski.

Don't Write Anonymous Letters
There is a whole field of forensic stylistics or forensic linguistics to study these turns of phrase. We use language in idiosycratic ways. It can be one of many things that give you away if you've written something anonymously. Forensic linguists can find out what your particular idiosyncrasies are.

Interview edited for clarity.

Produced by Arwen Nicks.