Latest despatches from the Dictionary Wars bring news of Oxford’s words of the year, a counterblast to last week’s words from Collins dictionaries. Collins’s winning word was single-use — feeble, I thought. Its runner-up, gammon, is on Oxford’s list too. But the Oxford champion word is toxic. This, with its connotations, is interesting, but not so interesting to me as a runner-up: cakeism.
In November 2016, an aide to Mark Field MP was photographed in Downing Street with a handwritten note about Brexit reading: ‘What’s the model? Have cake and eat it.’ I thought this a splendid aim by the British negotiators. The Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel, did not. ‘They want to have their cake, eat it, and get a smile from the baker,’ he told reporters. Mr Bettel’s alternative motto was ‘No cherry-picking’ (a metaphor that in English dates only from the 1960s).
This was not the first formulation of British aims in terms of cake. Boris Johnson had earlier said: ‘My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.’ This was a daring denial of the proverbial irrationality of wanting irreconcilable things at once, something of a Boris Johnson speciality.
After the battle of Waterloo, in a letter to Lord Beresford, his old campaign companion, the Duke of Wellington wrote that the government was throwing away the results (‘taking up a little too much the tone of their rascally newspapers’). ‘Having got their cake,’ the Duke declared, ‘they want both to eat it and keep it.’
Some time between Wellington and our times, the proverb’s poles became reversed. Though some quibble at the illogicality, we now say: ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it.’ When first collected by good old John Heywood in 1546, the question was: ‘Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and have your cake?’ So it remained when Jonathan Swift picked it up as a cliché for his satirical samples of Polite Conversation: ‘She cannot eat her Cake, and have her Cake.’
Ours is a cakey decade. We think cake bad for us, yet we bake one to mark every endeavour: the launching of HMS Elizabeth or the anniversary of Magna Carta. This makes the generating of metaphors a piece of cake.