What does have your cake and eat it too mean?

Quick Answer

The common idiom “have your cake and eat it too” refers to wanting or trying to have two incompatible things, desires, or positions at the same time, especially when the only way to have one is to give up the other. For example, someone who wants a high-paying but stress-free job wants to “have their cake and eat it too” – usually jobs with high pay come with more responsibility and stress. The saying suggests that one can’t simultaneously retain their cake (keep it without eating it) and eat it as well. So they must choose one or the other.

Origin of the Phrase

The earliest known recorded version of this phrase appeared in a letter by the English politician Thomas Wolsey in 1519:

“A man can’t have his cake and eat his cake.”

In 1538, the proverb was first recorded in its current form:

“Would you both eat your cake and have your cake?”

This version was printed in John Heywood’s collection of proverbs called ‘A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue.’

The phrase implies that one cannot hold onto something and use or consume it at the same time. The cake represents a resource or benefit that can only be used once – it cannot be simultaneously saved and eaten.

What Does “Have Your Cake and Eat It Too” Mean?

The phrase “have your cake and eat it too” suggests wanting two incompatible things at the same time. Some key points on its meaning:

  • It refers to trying to have the best of both worlds – wanting contradictory outcomes or positions.
  • It implies wanting to use or consume a resource but also keep it intact.
  • The phrase suggests you can’t have exclusive benefits without tradeoffs – you must pick one or the other.
  • It is about double standards – expecting advantages without disadvantages.
  • It indicates being greedy, gluttonous, or unreasonable in your desires.
  • The saying advises that compromises and sacrifices are necessary in decision-making.

Overall, “have your cake and eat it too” means you can’t have exclusive benefits or the best of both worlds without accepting necessary tradeoffs or disadvantages. You must make choices and can’t be unreasonable in your expectations.

Examples of “Have Your Cake and Eat It Too”

Here are some examples of how “have your cake and eat it too” is commonly used:

  • Finances: You can’t expect to spend all your money now but still save up for retirement – you can’t have your cake and eat it too when budgeting.
  • Relationships: If you want a committed relationship, you can’t also expect total freedom – you can’t have your cake and eat it too when balancing autonomy with intimacy.
  • Work-life balance: It’s unrealistic to expect a high-powered, high-paying job that also offers lots of leisure time – you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
  • Politics: Voters often want lower taxes but also more government benefits and services – a politician can’t always promise to have your cake and eat it too.
  • Health: I want to lose weight, but I also want to eat whatever I want – you can’t have your cake and eat it too when trying to get fit.
  • Envy: She got angry that her friend bought an expensive car, but she also didn’t want to sacrifice to buy one herself – she wanted to have her cake and eat it too.

These examples demonstrate situations where someone wants contradictory outcomes or positions – generally both exclusive benefits without disadvantages. The phrase calls out the unreasonable expectation and emphasizes the need for compromise.

Where Does the Phrase Come From?

The metaphor at the heart of this idiom is that of food, specifically cake. Cake is a delicate food that can only be consumed once. As soon as you eat a piece, it is gone. This makes it a fitting symbol for a benefit, opportunity, or resource that has tradeoffs attached to using it.

Eaten cake no longer exists. But uneaten cake remains intact. Thus, eating and retaining cake are mutually exclusive. The concept of having one’s cake and simultaneously eating it creates an impossible contradiction – you can choose only one. This neatly captures the idea that many choices in life require compromise or sacrifice.

Interestingly, other cultures use different food items in place of cake to express the same idea through their idioms. For example:

  • In Italian, the phrase is “volere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca” meaning “to want the barrel full and the wife drunk.”
  • In Spanish, the idiom is “querer el duro y el camero” or “to want the dollar and the goat.”
  • In Russian, their version is “you can’t sit on two chairs with one bottom” using chairs instead of food.

But the imagery of finite, consumable cake nicely embodies the core metaphor in the English version of simultaneously retaining and using something.

What’s the Origin of the Cake Idiom?

The first known record of the phrase “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” appeared in a 1538 collection of English proverbs and sayings compiled by John Heywood.

Heywood was collecting various idioms and turns of phrase in use during the Renaissance era. This indicates the metaphorical cake concept was already established in English language and culture by the 1500s.

Using cake in figurative language and idioms was likely popularized thanks to a few key factors:

  • Cake was considered a treat food or celebratory food in the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods.
  • Refined sugar needed for cake recipes was still somewhat rare and expensive at that time – cake was an indulgence.
  • Wedding cakes and celebratory cakes were becoming more extravagant and decorated.
  • The delicate and fleeting nature of cake made it a fitting symbol for a pleasurable benefit that must be consumed to enjoy.

The medieval cake was rare and desirable enough to lend itself well to metaphorical phrases about pleasures versus prudence. And the saying has endured for centuries, retaining its core connotations today.

Regional Variations

While “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” is the version most well-known today, some slightly different variations emerged regionally over time.

Some examples:

  • “Eat one’s cake and have it still” – Scotland
  • “Eat your cake and have a penny still” – Gloucestershire
  • “Eat your cake and have your cake” – Devon
  • “Eat your cake and hold your farling” – Norfolk

These regional phrases likely arose when traveling storytellers and writers modified the idiom’s phrasing and substitutions for “cake” to suit local audiences. The core metaphor remains intact. But the examples showcase how idioms can develop localized varieties, especially in the era before mass media standardized language.

The current widespread form – “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” – has now become the dominant version thanks to national publications and media adopting it.

Exceptions and Counterarguments

While “having one’s cake and eating it too” is viewed as contradictory and impossible, there are some exceptions and counterarguments:

  • Literal cake: It is in fact possible to have a cake and eat a cake – just not the whole thing all at once. So the idiom suggests wanting everything without tradeoffs, not a literal baked good.
  • Compromise: Finding a middle ground can sometimes allow a bit of both positions or desires, not always an either-or choice.
  • Changing circumstances: The options available shift over time, so compromises today still allow new opportunities tomorrow.
  • Innovation: Creative solutions could potentially resolve seeming contradictions, allowing more than one benefit at once.
  • Baby cakes: Mini cakes and cupcakes are now in vogue, so you can consume some cake and keep much of it.

However, these counterarguments mostly serve as technicalities. The general principle and metaphor still applies to many either-or decisions in life with inherent tradeoffs. But the idiom should not be taken as universal truth without exceptions.

Quotes About Wanting It All

Philosophers, authors, and historical figures have shared insights related to the idea that choices and moderation are necessary, and that wanting contradictory things is unrealistic. Here are some relevant quotes:

  • “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” – Steven Wright
  • “Desiring the impossible is the exact definition of unhappiness.” – Tim Minchin
  • “Temperance is simply a disposition of the mind which binds the passion.” – Thomas Aquinas
  • “Have patience awhile; slanders are not long-lived. Truth is the child of time; erelong she shall appear to vindicate thee.” – Immanuel Kant
  • “Delay not, swift the flight of fortune’s greatest favours.” – Publilius Syrus
  • “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” – Socrates

These sentiments advise being satisfied with reasonable benefits in life. Wanting unlimited boons or incompatible outcomes will only lead to frustration and sorrow. Moderation and balance is a wise path.

Idioms With a Similar Meaning

Many other idioms also express the idea of wanting two incompatible things or unrealistic choices. Some idioms that convey a meaning similar to “have one’s cake and eat it too” include:

  • “You can’t have it both ways.”
  • “One cannot serve two masters.”
  • “You can’t win them all.”
  • “You can’t run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.”
  • “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Like the cake idiom, these phrases emphasize the need for moderation, realizing limitations, and understanding you can’t always get everything you want without sacrifice. Both retain benefits and utilize them at the same time in an unlimited way. Overall, many idioms express the same concept with colorful metaphors.

Usage in Pop Culture and Media

Due to its catchy rhyme and imagery, “have your cake and eat it too” has been used widely in song lyrics, book titles, commercial products, and more. Here are some examples:

  • Beyoncé’s song “Cake” includes the lyrics “You can’t have my cake and eat it too.”
  • A memoir by rapper 50 Cent is titled “Have a Baby by Me: Be My Baby and Have My Baby and Still Have Your Baby Too.”
  • The baking company Duncan Hines sells a cake mix called “Have Your Cake and Eat it Too.”
  • TV shows like The Simpsons, How I Met Your Mother, and Gossip Girl have featured characters saying this phrase.
  • Magazines use it in articles about dieting and balanced lifestyles.

The idiom is common in relationship articles regarding autonomy versus commitment. It also arises in political commentary about wanting government services without taxation. Using a familiar figurative phrase helps succinctly convey these complex stances.

How to Use “Have Your Cake and Eat It Too” Idiom

Here are some tips for using this idiom naturally in speech and writing:

  • Introduce it after describing two incompatible choices or positions that someone desires.
  • Use it when giving advice about the need for moderation and realizing limitations.
  • Work it naturally into a warning about unrealistic expectations.
  • Follow the idiom by emphasizing why both options are unlikely using “because…”
  • Add an example after the idiom to clarify the contradictory stances.
  • Substitute “wants” for “can’t”, as in “He wants to have his cake and eat it too.”

Using this colorful phrase helps quickly convey the complex metaphor of wanting exclusive benefits without compromise. It packs an idiomatic punch in just a few words.

Key Takeaways

  • The idiom “have one’s cake and eat it too” conveys wanting contradictory or incompatible things at the same time.
  • It suggests greedy, unreasonable desires to have the best of both worlds or exclusive benefits without disadvantages.
  • The metaphor implies the need for compromise and sacrifice when making choices in life.
  • The phrase emphasizes that using up resources or benefits means no longer retaining them in an intact form.
  • First recorded in the 1500s, the idiom remains widely known and used today.

So in summary, while literally eating one’s cake leaves none left over, when applied metaphorically, the phrase highlights the unrealistic expectation of simultaneous retention and use. Understanding the nuance helps avoid greedy desires and make wise compromises instead.


The idiom “have one’s cake and eat it too” uses cake, often viewed as an indulgence, to symbolize the contradictory desire to hold onto pleasures while also consuming them without moderation or prudence. It neatly encapsulates the concept that choices in life often require tradeoffs – you can’t have the best of both worlds or get everything you want. Sacrifices are necessary, and compromise provides balance.

While the metaphorical cake itself implies a certain either-or scenario, the idiom should not be taken as an absolute universal truth. But understanding its traditional meaning helps illuminate the need for reasonable desires and wise decision-making. Wanting the impossible leads only to disappointment. So satisfy cravings in moderation and focus energy on achievable aims. Then success can be savored.

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