Pies and cakes in English idioms
It is assumed that the word pie came into English via Old French, from Latin pica ‘magpie’, which in turn is related to picus ‘green woodpecker’. Here, the allusion is perhaps to the various combinations of ingredients of a pie being comparable to the objects randomly collected by a magpie. Its sweet equivalent, the cake, on the other hand, first denoted a small flat bread roll. It is of Scandinavian origin, apparently related to Swedish kaka and Danish kage.
Pies and cakes, as you might know, also show up in many common English idioms. Here we take a closer look at the meanings and origins of some of them:
To take the cake
This idiom is chiefly North American, but a British equivalent, ‘to take the biscuit’, also exists. Meaning to ‘be the most remarkable or foolish of its kind’, it is often used ironically or as an expression of surprise. The reference appears to be to a dance called ‘cakewalk’ that originated in the black communities of the American South, where the best dancer was awarded with a cake. Apparently, handing out cakes as prizes for dancing competitions was also once a common practice in ancient Greece and Ireland.
To eat humble pie
Everyone likes a pie, you think? There are probably few people who have enjoyed the taste of the humble sort. Interestingly, the humble here is actually a pun on the word umble, with the umbles being the heart, liver, and entrails of the deer, or ‘the huntsmen’s perquisites’, as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable tells us. According to them, while “the lord and his family dined off venison at high table, the huntsman and his fellows took lower seats and partook of the umbles made into a pie” – hence the meaning of the expression ‘to be humbled or humiliated’.
To go/sell like hot cakes
If something sells ‘like hot cakes’, it sells quickly and in large quantities. The idea behind this phrase is, unsurprisingly, that hot cakes are something desirable and in demand. Variations also exist in other languages: in German and French, warme Semmeln (‘warm bread rolls’) and petit pains (‘bread rolls’) are sold instead. In Spanish, it is the churros that sell – a sweet snack consisting of a strip of fried dough dusted with sugar or cinnamon.
A piece of cake/as easy as pie
‘A piece of cake’ and ‘easy as pie’ mean broadly similar things: something that is easy, or easily achieved. The two phrases are also fairly recent additions to the English language, first appearing in 1936 and 1913 respectively according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). In both instances, the allusion is not to the making of a cake or pie, which isn’t necessarily the easiest thing, but rather to the eating of one.
To have one’s cake and eat it
Having a cake and being able to eat it at the same time sure sounds like a good thing, but sadly, since it’s mostly impossible to enjoy each of two equally desirable things, the expression is more commonly used in a negative sense, as in ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it (too)’. Unlike ‘piece of cake’ and ‘easy as pie’, this expression is a very old one: the OED currently dates it to the 16th century.
Pie in the sky
You don’t need to be an astronomer to know that there’s no such thing as a ‘pie in the sky’ – even though it’s a nice thought – which contributed to the phrase’s meaning ‘something that is pleasant to contemplate but very unlikely to be realized’. The words are taken from the song The Preacher and the Slave (1911) written and performed by labour activist Joe Hill:
You will eat, bye and bye,
In the glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
The song was a parody of the Salvation Army’s hymn In the Sweet By and By and the famous line originally referred to a reward in heaven for virtue or suffering on earth.
Cakes and ale
Cakes and ale obviously mean ‘a good time’. The expression was apparently first used by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night (1623), where Sir Toby Belch asks Malvolio: “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more Cakes and Ale?” A modern English variant is beer and skittles, while the Scots are also known to refer to cake and cheese.
A piece (or slice) of the pie
Similar to many of the expressions discussed above, pie stands for something desirable here. ‘A piece (or slice) of the pie’ is usually used in the sense ‘a share of an amount of money or business available to be claimed or distributed’. More broadly, ‘to have a piece of the pie’ can also mean ‘to be involved in a matter’. The OED currently attributes the first usage of this sense to the American author Mark Twain, who used it in a letter written in 1868.