Cake. Having it and eating it.

Isn’t language marvellous? We use it every day but it never seems to run out – in fact, it’s constantly being re-charged – and, even allowing for those who habitually abuse it, it never lets us down.

As long as you keep going, that is. The moment you stop and take a look at a word, or say it in isolation, it becomes a freak. I offer the word “goat”. Nothing wrong with it as long as it’s describing a Billy or a Nanny or, in the possessive, its cheese. I have a friend who used to refer to Leonard Cohen as “the old goat” – and he was. But “goat” on its own? Goat. Goat, goat, goat. Getting odder by the minute. Goat. And pretty soon, it’s done for, no use to anyone. Goat?

So you can imagine how spectacularly a whole phrase can come to grief. In recent times, much mention has been made in reference to Brexit about we British wanting to have our cake and eat it. And I’ve come aground on it. Its usage is clear: it’s a bad thing to want both to have your cake and to eat it. It’s greedy, selfish, unbecoming, disloyal, cheating – caddish, somehow.

I find it a rather strange concept to be in possession of a cake without intending to eat at least some of it – unless you’re a baker and you’ve baked a cake for someone else: but let’s not get into semantics. Surely the very business of having your cake is synonymous with eating it? (Are we having cake? Would you like to have some cake? Don’t ask her, she’s had cake.)

I suppose you could accept the offer of a slice of cake, watch as it is cut and then put on a plate – with or without a doiley – and placed in front of you. That would be the moment of having your cake – an act solely of possession that takes place in the few seconds that are required by good manners to elapse before you shove it in your cakehole. That might be a technicality you could argue in your defence, but it is somewhat disingenuous.

Is there something I’ve missed here? Is there some activity I’m not familiar with that consists of just having a cake as a possession or a condition – like I have a pencil or I have a headache – which is wholly different from the activity of eating a cake (the same cake, presumably, although there may be unforeseeable circumstances in which one might actually have one cake in the possessive sense and eat a different one in the consuming sense, either simultaneously or subsequently)?

I’m not very clear on what would be the point. What exactly does the activity of merely having a cake bestow upon the person doing the having, other than good old catholic self-denial? What’s more, if I have a cake without the slightest intention of eating it, what is my status? In the cake world, the cake-archy, it might be an all-important distinction to make between the haves and the have-nots, but then you might have to extend the field to include scones, biscuits and petits-fours. To say nothing of cucumber sandwiches, crumpets and Danish pastries.

It must come down to the difference between wanting to have your cake and eat it and actually having your cake and eating it, the former being more sinful than the latter and the greater guilt being borne by those who own up to their desire – the others merely get on and do it anyway.

It’s that simple. Piece of cake, you might say.

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