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shameless pleading





Selling like hotcakes

IHop, you hop…

Dear Word Detective: I love your column and having just discovered you have written a book, I am literally on my way out the door to buy it. I hope you can explain to me the origin of the phrase, “selling like hotcakes.” My only guess is that hotcakes somewhere at sometime were very popular, enough to create this particular expression. — Sarama Teague.

Well, it’s been a while since I received your question, but how did running out the door to buy my book work out? I’ve actually written four books (five, if you count a complete revision of the first one). Unfortunately, you’re not likely to find any of them in those big chain bookstores, although they’re all still in print. But online booksellers will be happy to sell you The Word Detective (a collection of these columns), From Altoids to Zima (the origins of popular product names), or Making Whoopee (words associated with love and romance). I also wrote two editions of something called The Book Lover’s Guide to the Internet back in the mid-1990s, which Random House is still selling even though it is fifteen years out of date and thus about as useful as Stagecoaches for Dummies.


Nature's Perfect Food

Hotcakes (aka “pancakes” or “griddlecakes”) are still popular in my family, enough so that there was a minor revolt last year when a certain restaurant chain (we call it “Barrel of Crack”) switched from serving genuine 100% maple syrup on their pancakes to a watery corn-syrup blend. Incidentally, if you’ve ever been to a Cracker Barrel, you’ve seen the rocking chairs lined up for sale out front. I noticed last month that they now have an Extra Large model available with beefed-up legs and rockers. They must be selling a lot of pancakes.

The term “hotcake” is an American invention, dating back to the late 17th century (“pancake,” meaning the same food, is older, first appearing in England around 1400). To “sell like hotcakes” has meant “to be in great demand” since about 1839, and there doesn’t seem to have been any particular “hotcake fad” leading to the origin of the phrase. But hotcakes have always been popular at fairs and church socials, etc., often selling as fast as they can be cooked, so they make a good metaphor for a very popular product that sells quickly and in great numbers.

Of course, pancakes are, when properly made, quite flat, and “flat as a pancake” has meant “perfectly flat” since the 16th century. A building that collapses straight down floor by floor is said to “pancake,” and when an aircraft drops jarringly onto the runway it is called a “pancake landing.” In Britain, Canada and Australia pancakes are traditionally eaten on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent in the Christian calendar, and the day itself is called “Pancake Day” or “Pancake Tuesday” in many places. This day, also known as “Fat Tuesday” or “Mardi Gras,” has traditionally been the occasion for using up all the fat, butter, and other rich ingredients in one’s house in preparation for the fasting and self-denial of Lent.

6 comments to Selling like hotcakes

  • Steve C

    As a half-life long resident of Kansas, your mention of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday brings to mind the internationally famous Pancake Race in Liberal, Kansas. I say international because entrants not only race against each other but also against runners in Olney, England–a sister city, I think.

    The race is an alleged reenactment of the following story (from

    “In Olney, the Pancake Race tradition dates back more than 500 years to 1445. A woman engrossed in using up cooking fats (forbidden during Lent) was making pancakes. Hearing the church bells ring calling everyone to the shriving service, she grabbed her head scarf (required in church) and ran to the church, skillet and pancake in hand and still apron-clad. In following years, neighbors got into the act and it became a race to see who could reach the church first and collect a ‘Kiss of Peace’ from the verger (bell-ringer.) The kiss is still the traditional prize in both races.

    Racers must still wear a head scarf and apron and the runner must flip her pancake at the starting signal, and again after crossing the finish line, to prove she still has her pancake.”

    Liberal has only had the tradition since 1950. The road where the race is run, also U.S. highway 54, has actually been renamed “Pancake” in honor of the race.

  • H. Freckenhorst

    Then there’s the 1934 version of Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life, in which Claudette Colbert makes a fortune selling pancakes made from a recipe supplied by Louise Beavers, who plays an African-American friend who works as Colbert’s maid. It’s a very odd piece of early Hollywood racial awareness.

  • Hi, thanks for this very usefull post. I can definitely use this! I’ve bookmarked your blog

  • gina thorne

    I just bought “The Word Origin” calendar, and there version of this saying dates back to medieval England, where “crepes” were considered hotcakes and sold at fairs. And as they were popular French fare, became a favorite of those attending. The English “pigged out” on them, so to speak.

  • […] “Selling like hotcakes:” Around 1839, this tasty term likened anything that sold out quickly to one of America’s most popular foodstuffs. Hotcakes and pancakes have always enjoyed a beloved spot in the nation’s culinary heart, and serve as some of the best metaphors for anything that flies off the shelves. They never blew up as one major “flash in the pan” fad, but rather endured as a classic, reliable comfort food. […]

  • I was told it derived from the Great Depression when charity kitchens served for breakfast as it was inexpensive to make and filled the stomach and the cost was, we’ll free; hence “selling like pancakes.”

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