Word of the Day: Cake

December 23, 2010 in Word of the Day

As the festive season draws on, let’s join the revelry by exploring the choicer morsels from Shakespeare’s ten recorded uses of the word ‘cake’. Most famous is Sir Toby Belch’s riposte to Malvolio in Twelfth Night:

Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?

“Cakes and ale” is an example of the rhetorical device of hendiadys, the use of two concrete nouns to stand in for a wider abstract concept: here, having a good time. (“Slings and arrows” is the other famous Shakespearean example of hendiadys.) The device’s tendency to stick in the head is shown by the fact that Shakespeare uses it again at the very end of his career, when the Porter in Henry VIII complains:

Belong to the gallows, and be hang’d, ye rogue! Is this a place to roar in?… Do you look for ale and cakes here, you rude rascals?

The OED cites Sir Toby as one of the earliest examples of cake being used “figuratively in obvious allusion to its estimation (esp. by children) as a ‘good thing'” – it’s a sign that the word was now firmly accepted in England as referring specifically to sweet pastry, as opposed to any sort of small, flat loaf. It’s not surprising that a mind like Shakespeare’s began to use this connotation of sweetness as a basis for innuendo. In Henry IV Part II, Doll adds some sauce to the word ‘cake’ by connecting it with another type of food served in brothels:

He a captain! hang him, rogue! he lives upon mouldy stewed prunes and dried cakes.

And, at the opening of Troilus and Cressida, the bawdy Pandarus insists that Troilus needs to be as patient and hard-working while wooing Cressida as he would be while baking (not that the Trojan War left much time for the latter):

…here’s yet in the word ‘hereafter’ the kneading, the making of the cake, the heating of the oven, and the baking; nay, you must stay the cooling too, or you may chance to burn your lips.

Eat, drink and be merry indeed…

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