The Unabomber was right about cake


One of the the reasons for which the the Unabomber, Ted Kaczinsky was caught was his unusual wording of a common phrase: "You can't have your cake and eat it too."

James R. Fitzgerald, acting unit chief in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit-1 who has been with the agency for almost 20 years, recalls how a transposition of verbs in the manifesto written by the Unabomber helped lead to a closer identification of Ted Kaczynski in April 1996.

The latter used the phrase “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too,” instead of the usual form, which is “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Like most people, Mr. Fitzgerald thought Kaczynski had made a mistake. But examination of other letters by him contained a similar feature, which, Mr. Fitzgerald says, “is actually a traditionally middle English way of using the term. He technically had it right and the rest of us had it wrong. It was one of the big clues that allowed us to make the rest of the comparison and submit a report to the judge who signed off on a search warrant.”

Well I'm here to tell you that the unabomber is correct. The phrase should be "You can't eat your cake and have it too." It just doesn't make sense the other way around. Of course I can have my cake and eat it. That's how most people eat cake: you know, by having it first.

Interestingly, Google's Ngram viewer, which graphs the frequency of phrases in books over time, shows that the "eat your cake and have it" variety was actually more common up until the 1930s.

It seems that people had the order right for a long time. Maybe somebody misremembered the phrase and the wrong version just stuck. Who knows?

Plenty has been said about how a phrase's etymology doesn't prescribe its modern usage. Maybe it doesn't matter how people from 100 years ago said things. Even so, I believe that clarity is paramount in writing. “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” is inherently unclear because it is out of order chronologically. It's only after eating your cake that you no longer have it.

So let this be a lesson in grammar from the Unabomber himself. Next time you reach into your mental lexicon to pull out this little phrase, repeat after me:

You can't eat your cake and have it too.

Good day.