Imagine you are going to your friend’s wedding next weekend. It was arranged months ago. You were invited, and you RSVP’d. But a work colleague has just offered you free tickets to a Bruce Springsteen concert… next weekend.
What do you do?
Economists call this “opportunity cost.” The rest of us call it rotten luck. The ability to think about what you are not going to have, as a result of your own choices, seems a peculiarly universal human trait. It’s perhaps the most fundamental concept in economics (which makes you wonder why so many economists are fuzzy about it). Weighing possible futures is something that we do constantly when we try to determine whether something will cost us money, effort or time. We make both tiny and huge decisions based on it.
The phrase “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” perfectly expresses this constant dilemma that we face: having to choose one thing over another when we’d like to do both. Small wonder, then, that the phrase has direct equivalents in many languages.
Less well known is its curious history. A letter from the Duke of Norfolk to Thomas Cromwell in 1538 stated that “a man can not have his cake and eat his cake”, but for the next couple of centuries, it was reversed: “you cannot eat your cake and have your cake”. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used this version in his 1940 State of the Union address.
At about that time, the phrase seems to have shifted back to the form we mainly use today.
That would normally be that. But in a remarkable twist, this phrase was responsible for capturing one of America’s most notorious serial murderers. Theodore J. Kaczynski had been mailing homemade bombs to people and institutions since 1978. He was known as the Unabomber. In 1995 he sent a manifesto to the press, railing against modern technologies, a phrase of which read: “As for the negative consequences of eliminating industrial society – well, you can’t eat your cake and have it too – to gain one thing you have to sacrifice another.” Ted’s brother David Kaczynski read the Unabomber Manifesto in the newspaper and wondered at the expression: it was the same phrasing their mother had always insisted on. He supplied the FBI with Ted’s old letters, with which forensic analysts were able to convince a judge to give them a warrant.
The moral of the story? Pedants, beware. You can’t have it both ways.
Have your cake and eat it in…
- Polish: The wolf is full and the lamb whole.
- Italian: You can’t have the barrel full and the wife drunk.
- French: To want the butter and the money from the butter.
- Danish: You can’t blow and have flour in your mouth.
- European Portuguese: To want sunshine on the floor while it rains on the turnip field.
- Spanish: You can’t be at mass and ringing the bells.
- German: You can’t dance at two weddings at the same time.