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Eat the cake and still have it?

中国日报网 2013-01-08 16:31

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Reader question:

Please explain this sentence: “You can’t eat your cake and still have it, too”.

My comments:

In other words, you can’t have it both ways.

Both ways?

Yeah, both this way and that way, although they’re two obviously different ways. Teachers always tell students, for instance, to work hard so that they’ll have good grades come examination time. You can’t play all the time and expect to have good grades. Can’t have it both ways, i.e. can’t have two incompatible things at the same time.

Moms tell their children “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too”, because kids want to do that all the time. “Cake” may be a metaphor or may not be a piece of real cake, which is, or at least used to be something of a luxury, something precious.

For our purpose, let’s take the “cake” for real. Visualize a mother setting down the cake on the table while telling the child: “Go easy. Don’t eat it all at once (so that you’ll have something nice for dinner as well).”

The child wants to gobble it all now – and yet, of course, they want to have more cake to eat at dinner (and perhaps some more for tomorrow).

Can’t happen, of course. Once you eat the cake, the cake is gone. Won’t be there – Can’t eat it all and still have it sitting invitingly on the table.

In other words, any course of action leads to its own consequences – can’t have the action and not have its consequences as well.

I thought this idiom is American in origin (based on simplicity) but, upon research, I see it came into use long before the advent of US of A. The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, for instance, quotes a 1546 work by John Heywood asking:

“Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?”

Anyways, you understand that “can’t eat your cake and have it too” is descriptive of any situation where a choice between two opposing decisions has to be make. It’s a question of either, or (either this or than), not both (this and that).

Here are media examples:

1. Leading accountant and shipping industry adviser Moore Stephens says the shipping sector faces a challenging year in 2011, with freight rates under pressure, crew costs continuing to rise and the banks closely monitoring the future viability of poor performers.

Writing in the latest issue of Bottom Line, the firm’s shipping newsletter, Julian Wilkinson, head of the Moore Stephens Shipping Industry Group, says, “Last year should have been the year that future generations would use to frighten their children into believing that, unless they ate their greens, they would suffer the privations that were visited upon shipping. The truth was somewhat different.

“The shipping markets continued to be challenging in 2010 because, despite positive signs on the demand side, surplus tonnage, a lack of funding, a continuing glut of new buildings and fierce competition led to downward pressure on freight rates. But confidence levels in the first half of the year still reached eighteen-month highs, not bad for an industry that was supposed to be ailing. Owners started to think about new investments, and about finance costs coming down. Confidence suffered a minor wobble towards the end of the year, but 2010 still closed on talk of IPOs, strategic acquisitions, joint ventures and major investments.

“That confidence should be sustained this year, building on the general forbearance shown by the banks in 2010 when assessing non-performing shipping loans. But we can expect to see the banks commission more independent business reviews to assess the future viability of poor performers.”

Wilkinson adds, “Crew costs will continue to rise. They were the only operating costs going up in 2009, will have done likewise in 2010 and will continue to do so in 2011. An executive at a leading shipping line recently welcomed a strong increase in revenue for the first nine months of last year and urged his crews to celebrate by eating cream cake. This didn’t go down well with the unions, who claimed that the results had been achieved through job cutbacks. You can’t eat your cake and have it.”

- Shipping sector faces a challenging year, MooreStephens.co.uk, January, 2011.

2. Recently I read a column about the origin of the phrase “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” Apparently the phrase originated with the eat before the have — “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too.” While you might debate the best order, the point is that sometimes you have to make a choice between two options, each of which excludes the other.

This might often be true, particularly as regards to cake, but it is not always true of natural systems. Take a look at a forest ecosystem. Managed well, forests are more like the fairy tale pot of porridge that never gets empty.

Forests produce such an abundance of foods and materials that they can be used for human purposes without harming either their very important function in providing clean air and water, or their ability to provide food and habitat for a host of other creatures

After every windstorm you can collect fallen branches for firewood. Forests produce nuts, berries, roots, sap and mushrooms for food and other purposes. Leaves, bark and roots provide herbs and spices. Many medicines have their origins in trees and other plants. Forest habitats support an abundance of fish, birds and mammals, which can also provide important food sources for those who wish to consume animal products in a local, low-impact, sustainable way.

Harvesting at a sustainable rate allows you to return to the forest season after season, year after year, without depleting these resources...

In this way, we can continue to have our forests and use them, too.

- You can have your forest and use it, too, By Celeste Maiorana, Herald-Mail.com, March 11, 2011.

3. In the Sunday Review section of the New York Times, I took a look at how forensic linguists try to determine the author of an e-mail by picking up on subtle clues of style and grammar. This is very much in the news, thanks to a lawsuit filed against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg by one Paul Ceglia, who claims that Zuckerberg promised him half of Facebook’s holdings, as proven by e-mail exchanges he says they had. Did Zuckerberg actually write the e-mails? Call the language detectives.

As I learned from researching the piece for the Times, the field of forensic linguistics is a contentious one, especially when it comes to matters of authorship attribution. It’s one thing when a scholar is trying to determine who wrote a literary work — for instance, when the English professor Donald Foster correctly identified Joe Klein as the author of the political novel Primary Colors, despite Klein’s protests to the contrary. Even with a long text, like a play that may or may not have been written by Shakespeare, there can be vehement debates among scholars. Now imagine trying to determine the author of a handful of e-mails or text messages.

The expert report filed on behalf of Zuckerberg came to the conclusion that he probably didn't write the e-mails that Ceglia said he did, but the evidence was seen as rather skimpy by the forensic linguists I talked to. (For further details, see this discussion by Mark Liberman on Language Log, especially the comments made on the post by Ron Butters, Larry Solan, and Carole Chaski, all experts in the field.) A handful of style markers were claimed to reveal an authorial difference between the e-mails in question (Ceglia quoted 35 of them in his amended complaint) and actual Zuckerberg e-mails from the time. These markers included variations in spelling (cannot vs. can not), capitalization (Internet vs. internet), punctuation (“...” vs. “. . .”), and syntax (run-on sentences vs. sentences with separating punctuation). The expert, Gerald McMenamin, found that 9 of the 11 style markers that he analyzed showed differences and two showed similarities, which he saw as strong enough evidence to conclude that Zuckerberg was not the author of the questioned e-mails. But others have argued that the sample size was simply too small to draw meaningful conclusions, and that the style markers were not systematically measured.

The Facebook case is just one of many where forensic linguists studying authorship attribution have become key expert witnesses in litigation proceedings. Their expertise has also been sought by law enforcement agencies in the hunt for criminal suspects. One famous case is that of the Unabomber, where textual clues were key in identifying Ted Kaczynski as the author of the Unabomber’s manifesto in 1996. For instance, the manifesto used the phrase “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too,” instead of the more typical “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” The “eat/have” word order is, in a way, more logical, and also happens to predate the “have/eat” order — see my On Language reader response for more. Ted Kaczynski had used the “eat/have” version in known letters (his brother David said that their mother had taught them that was the way the expression should be), and this was one of the pieces of evidence that helped FBI agents convince a judge to issue a search warrant of Kaczynski’s Montana cabin.

- Does E-Mail Have Fingerprints? By Ben Zimmer, Vocabulary.com, July 28, 2011.

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About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

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