Life’s a piece (or two) of cake.

In the last two weeks I gained 5 pounds. I should clarify that this is not something I typically do. I am in fairly decent shape and I take good care of my health more or less. Unfortunately recently it’s been less rather than more. The blame falls to birthday cake (well, okay, to be fair, the blame rests with my complete and utter lack of will power, but let’s just pretend it’s the cake’s fault)

July was a delicious month around our house. First, my husband had a birthday. Then my oldest son (a Christmastime baby) had a summer celebration for his birthday since it’s so hard to celebrate with his friends during the holidays. Then my youngest son had a birthday, followed a few days later by a party with some of his little friends. All totaled that’s one ice cream cake, a traditional chocolate birthday cake decorated with multiple layers of frosting, and two separate batches of cupcakes.

I guess you could say I have been having my cake and eating it, too. But while that statement wouldn’t exactly be untrue, it would be an inaccurate rendering of the famous “eating your cake” proverb.

The idiom first appears in the historical record in 1546 as part of a catalogue of English proverbs collected by John Heyood, in which he asks: “Would you both eat your cake, and have your cake?” He actually spelled that quite differently, but as I generally speak modern English, I updated the quote a little, both for your convenience, and so that you don’t think me pretentious, like one of those people who would stop you mid-sentence to correct your grammar (By the way, I am totally one of those people. I’m not proud of it.)

Apparently the phrase got plenty of use over the next couple hundred years as it shows up in the brilliant satirist Jonathan Swift’s 1738 “Polite Conversation” in which his mockery of the phrase indicates that it must have been a thoroughly overused cliché of his day. When the work was republished a few years later as “Tittle Tattle” (after Swift’s death), the phrase had been reversed; thus, “She cannot eat her cake and have her cake” became “She cannot have her cake and eat her cake.” After that (and I think if Swift were alive today he would agree that I’m not exaggerating here) all hell broke loose. The reordered idiom not only seeped into common language, but by the 1940’s, almost no one said it correctly anymore.

The original meaning of the phrase is, of course, about making a choice. If you have a cake and you choose to eat it, then you will no longer have a cake. You can’t have it both ways. Cultures all over the world have developed sayings that express this same universal truth. In China, the saying goes that you cannot have a horse that both runs fast and consumes no feed. An Italian Proverb goes something like: you can’t have the barrel full and the wife drunk. And my personal favorite is from Russia: it’s hard to have a seat on two chairs at once.

Of course the Russian idiom seems in some ways just as problematic as the reordered English proverb. If we consider that one both has a cake and eats it and if we assume that the phrase involves sequential activity (first you have a cake and then you eat it), then, having just eaten an entire cake (or in my case multiple helpings of several cakes), then you might require an additional chair to support your extra poundage.

I understand why people get a little picky about the proverb, though. If you think about it, to have a cake and eat it, really has little to do with making a tough choice and this is especially true when you have plenty of leftover cake and ample opportunity to grab a slice after the kids go to bed.

But the cake is finally gone and there won’t be another birthday in our house until October, giving me a good solid two months to count calories, exercise, and squeeze back into my skinny pants. It won’t be much fun, but what can I expect? I ate my cake and now I don’t have my cake. And I will have to live with the consequences.

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