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shameless pleading

Piece of Cake

Forget Shakespeare.  Cake is the pinnacle of human culture.

Dear Word Detective:  Probably everyone knows what “a piece of cake” means.  As a figure for something that is not only done easily, but is also enjoyable, it is a pretty  straightforward metaphor.  My question is about its origin.  The first I recall hearing it was in the song “A Spoonful of Sugar” from the musical “Mary Poppins.”  When you find the fun in a  particular job, so the song says, “then every task you undertake becomes a piece of cake.”  Is this the origin of the phrase, or was it in use previously?  (Apologies for setting your head  humming.) — Charles Anderson.

No problem.  That song can’t get stuck in my head because I’ve never heard the song.  That’s right, I’ve never seen “Mary Poppins.”  I’ve also never seen “The Sound of Music.”  Appalling, I know, but it gets worse.  I’ve also never seen”Titanic,” “Shrek” (any of them, or any big-screen cartoon, for that matter), or any of the “Lord of the Rings” movies.  You name it, I haven’t seen it.  Come Saturday night, you’ll find us poring over the newspaper, deciding what movie not to see.

But while I’m not exactly an avid movie-goer, I do love cake, and, judging by the number of cake metaphors, proverbs and aphorisms out there, the English language agrees with me.  We speak of something easily accomplished as a “cakewalk,” we say that something extraordinary “takes the cake,” and we even caution that “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” as a way of saying that life demands choices.  And yes, I know that “purists” insist that “you can’t eat your cake and have it too” is the supposedly “proper” form.  But I’d like to point out that the last person to make a stink about that (Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber) is spending his life in a very small room.  (See the Wikipedia entry on the phrase for the story.)

To say that something is “a piece of cake,” of course, is to say that it is very easy or pleasant, or, often, pleasantly easy.  If, for example, I brace myself going in the door of the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew my license, but find that there are only three people in line, I would almost certainly declare “Piece of cake!” (after recovering from fainting).  Of course,  just how “cakey” a task is depends on whether one is the “doer” or “sender.”  I learned early on in my work career that any boss who described an assignment as “a piece of cake” was almost certainly lying.

“Piece of cake” had been around for a while before Mary Poppins sang that song.  The phrase first appeared in print in the 1930s, and its exact origin is uncertain.  One theory traces it to the “cakewalk,” a contest popular in the African-American community in the 19th century, in which couples competed strolling arm in arm, with the prize, a cake, being awarded to the most graceful and stylish team (giving us the phrase “to take the cake”).  Although the “cakewalk”  demanded skill and grace, the term came to be used as boxing slang for an easily-won fight, and then for any “sure thing.”  It is very possible that “piece of cake” followed a similar route from the sophisticated art of “cakewalking” to meaning “the easiest thing imaginable.”

8 comments to Piece of Cake

  • Eddie

    With all this talk of cake, I feel I must point out to you the lyric from Toy Matinee’s “Last Plane Out” which reads:

    “With cake in vulgar surplus,
    you can have it, and eat it too”

    A very modern turn on the phrase, I think.

  • Johnny Dubb

    Wow! And I thought I surprised people with how few movies I’ve watched!

    No Mary Poppins? No Sound of Music?
    Now, I have no qualms about admitting that I have not seen the Titanic, or Shrek, but I thought everybody had seen those two musicals.

    I guess you really take the cake on that one!

  • CJ D

    After reading the answer above, and the brief mention of the Unabomber, I wonder about the origin of “make a stink” (or “raise a stink”) to mean “make a fuss.” How long have people used that expression? Did it come from the Greek understanding of the “humors” and bile and such being associated with anger, which could connect anger to indigestion, and then to possible emission of odors? Any ideas?

  • I love Shrek movies, awesome animation movie.

  • Ilze Vitands

    I read somewhere that the cakewalk itself derived from slaves mocking their masters’ pretentious displays during “The Grand March” portion of fancy balls, which was popular in white culture at the time. For an example of a Grand March, watch the John Ford movie “Fort Apache”.

  • I’ve had an Afro for 7 years. It’s a statement of who I am and where I’m from. Enjoy the Fro!

  • lauren

    thanks this really helped me with my speech whcih we have to talk about the orgin of an idiom for 2 minutes!

  • john barach

    there’s a story I’m trying to find in which a sailor of a PT boat in Europe – maybe the Dieppe raid?- calls the trip to come a “piece of cake”. I think he dies . Any help?

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