You’ve heard the phrase before – often as an expression of incredulity. “That just takes the cake!”
But what does cake have to do with winning the prize, so to speak?
You may think it comes down to the game that revolves all around cakes, the cake walk – but the first “take the cake” reference occurred circa 420 B.C. Aristophanes’ fourth play The Knights, a tale of Athens during the Peloponnesian War, contained a line that literally translates to, “If you surpass him in impudence the cake is ours.” Of course, this doesn’t refer to a literal cake (though that would be pretty cool too). It uses “cake” as a metaphor for victory.
While this is a logical origin of the phrase, the use came and went in just the one line – disappearing until the 19th century. This is when William Trotter Porter’s A Quarter Race in Kentucky used this line: “They got up a horse and fifty dollars in money a side…each one to start and ride his own horse…the winning horse take [sic] the cakes.” Once again, cake refers to victory.
This is where the cake walk comes in. In black southern communities of the U.S., couples dressed their best and paraded through a course with cakes with their best walk. The best-dressed, most charismatic couple won the walk, often winning some of the cakes they had walked through.
See this 1874 reference to a cake walk: “The cake-walk, in which ten couples participated, came off on Friday night, and the judges awarded the cake, which was a very beautiful and costly one, to Mrs. Sarah and John Jackson.”
It’s still a mystery as to why Aristophanes’ first real “take the cake” disappeared for centuries, and why it only reappeared in the 19th century.