You can’t have a full bottle and a drunken wife

Author: Jennifer Bodayle, NJCU Student (Main Campus)

Professor’s Note: In this post, Jennifer Bodayle explores some common and not-so-common idiomatic expressions. In particular, she compares the well-known American idiom “you can’t have your cake and eat it too,” with parallel idioms in Italian. Be sure to pay attention to the metaphorical quality of these idioms and how this connects to Lakoff and Johnson’s notion of metaphor as the fundamental component of our conceptual system.

Non si puo avere la botte piena è la moglie ubriaca.
(You can’t have a full bottle and a drunken wife.)
You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Ever come across an individual who wants the best of both worlds?  Or an individual who wants to be in a relationship; yet, wants his/her freedom too?  The spotlighted individual would not be a fan of the phrase, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”  The English phrase has an equivalent in Italian, “Non si puo avere la botte piena è la moglie ubriaca” – meaning “You can’t have a full bottle and a drunken wife.”  Both the Italian and English idiomatic expressions are cliché’s for ‘you can’t have the best of both worlds.’  Buckle up!  The adventure to the idiomatic expression’s context and history is underway.

As per the Urban Dictionary, “The phrase, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, is used for expressing the impossibility of having something both ways, if those two ways conflict.” The example provided is, “He works so hard to pay for that fancy house of his that he never has any time to stay home and enjoy it” (Urban Dictionary).  To have one’s cake and eat it too is most often used in a negative sense. It may indicate having or wanting more than one can handle or deserve. The proverb’s meaning is similar to the phrases “you can’t have it both ways” and “you can’t have the best of both worlds.” The idiomatic expression is centered on greed.

In his book titled, “Common Errors in English Usage” Paul Brians, Professor of English at Washington State University, defines a common error in “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”  He writes about how the phrase confuses people, “People mistakenly suppose the word “have” means “eat,” as in “Have a piece of cake for dessert.” A more logical version of this saying is “You can’t eat your cake and have it too,” meaning that if you eat your cake you won’t have it any more. “Have” means “possess” in this context, not “eat”” (Brians).

According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, “Have one’s cake and eat it, too. Have a dual benefit, as in Doug was engaged to Ann and still dating Jane; he was trying to eat his cake and have it, too. This metaphoric expression is often put negatively, as it already was in John Heywood’s proverb collection of 1546: “You cannot eat your cake and have your cake.”” The history of the phrase has now been unraveled.  The phrase “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” was first projected in 1546.

Four hundred and sixty four years later the idiomatic expression, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” remains a part of spoken language.  Although it takes the form of “an expression which cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements” (American Heritage) the phrase arises in conversation and is understood.  The idiomatic expression has positioned itself into people’s vocabulary systems.

Works Cited

Brians, Paul. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Common Errors in English Usage. Paul Brians, 2008. Web. 29 Mar 2010. <http://wsu.edu/~brians/errors/eatcake.html&gt;.

“eat one’s cake and have it, too.” American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms, The. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Credo Reference. Web. 25 March 2010.

“Urban Dictionary: You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary, 2010. Web. 25 Mar 2010.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Philology & Linguistics, Student Post

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