The Grammarphobia Blog

A piece of cake

Q: Why does the expression “a piece of cake” refer to something easy, while baking a cake (at least for me) is anything but?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t comment on the difficulties of cake-making, but it agrees with you that the colloquial phrase “a piece of cake” refers to “something easy or pleasant.”

How did cake get this reputation?

As the OED explains, cake is associated figuratively, especially by children, “as a ‘good thing,’ the dainty, delicacy, or ‘sweets’ of a repast.”

Cake comes off as highly rated in other phrases as well.

The expression “you can’t have your cake [that is, keep your cake] and eat it too” dates back, in various forms, to the 1500s.

Here’s its earliest incarnation, from John Heywood’s Proverbs and Epigrams (1562): “Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?”

The phrases “cakes and ale” (in England) and “cake and cheese” (in Scotland) have been used since the early 1600s as metaphors for the good things in life.

Similarly, the 19th-century American expression “to take the cake” means “to carry off the honours, rank first,” the OED says, adding that it’s “often used ironically or as an expression of surprise.”

And of course, any extra trimmings in the way of good luck will inevitably be described as “the icing on the cake” (1969).

But back to “a piece of cake.” The OED’s first citation comes from a collection of light verse by Ogden Nash, The Primrose Path (1935): “Her picture’s in the papers now, / And life’s a piece of cake.”

And here’s a later usage, from Terry McLean’s Kings of Rugby (1960): “They took the field against Canterbury as if the match were ‘a piece of cake.’ ”

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