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.”