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Guide to the Internet back in the mid-1990s, which Random House is still selling even though it is fifteen years out of date and thus about as useful as Stagecoaches for Dummies.
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.