That Just Takes the Cake!

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.

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“The true cake walk at the new circus.”

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.

 

Sources:

Phrases.org

Historical Origins

The Literature of G. A. Henty

G. A. Henty (1832-1902) wrote a LOT of books: over 100 novels and stories. He exclusively wrote in the historical adventure genre.

Henty’s interest in writing started at an early age. He often got sick as a child and spent his days in bed. With not much else to do, he read constantly and developed a wide number of interests.George_Alfred_Henty

Henty left his university without finishing his degree to volunteer for an army hospital; he was soon sent to Crimea, where he saw the horrible conditions of war. He regularly wrote home with detailed scenes of war. These letters impressed his father, who sent them to The Morning Advertiser newspaper for publishing.

With the war behind him and his letters published, Henty started a steady writing career by becoming a war correspondent.

This was helped along by his strong sense of patriotism toward his home country of Britain that he held for all of his life.

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This stunning copy of Through the Sikh War is available here.

Henty’s first published book was titled Out on the Pampas. The main characters in the story were named after Henty’s children. The book was written in 1868.

Almost all of his stories involved young men (occasionally women) living in hard times, especially during war. His protagonists all contained sparks of courage with strong moral compasses. Through all of his stories, Henty draws on his real-life experiences with war.

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This beautiful copy of Jack Archer is available here.

Despite the kind protagonists of his stories, some of Henty’s views sparked controversy, even in Victorian times, for xenophobia and racism. Perhaps this is why his books have not stood the test of time.

Henty had a brief stint of popularity with readers in the late 19th century, inspiring other writers to write in “the Henty tradition”. However, the period of popularity was brief, and people lost interest in his stories less than 30 years after his death.

Henty’s detailed war stories with spunky heroes sparked the imaginations of Victorian readers, and with the amount of stories he wrote, he certainly guaranteed himself a good stint of popularity. His books can now be looked upon as relics of the times they come from. 

The Symbolism of Flowers

Watch out: If you’re given a red geranium, the gift might not have good intentions.

Flowers, especially in the Victorian era, often have hidden (and sometimes not-so-hidden) symbolism. Red geraniums just happen to carry an insult: they mean “stupidity”.

But worry not, most popular flowers today have positive messages. And with spring just around the corner, it would be helpful to know these messages.

Floriography, the language of flowers, communicates messages through flower arrangements.

While France hit a floriography phase in the first half of the 19th century, the practice was most common in the Victorian era in Britain, at the time when lack of modesty was frowned upon and subtlety and tact had to go a long way for communication. Victorian men courting women used flowers to say to their beloved what they would not outright say in front of her parents or chaperones.

 

A vintage advertisement featuring chrysanthemums.

A vintage advertisement featuring chrysanthemums, symbols for optimism or joy.

Flowers can mean more than one thing, depending on the symbol guide you check. But usually it’s not hard to get to the bottom of their meaning.

Want to know what your flowers mean? Here’s a cheat sheet for some of the more common flowers:

Azalea – abundance
Crocus – youth
Daffodil – chivalry
Daisy – innocence
Freesia – spirited
Forget-Me-Not – remember me forever (as if that one wasn’t obvious)
Gardenia – joy
Hydrangea – perseverance
Jasmine – grace and elegance
Lavender – distrust
Lilac – first love
Rhododendron – beware
Pink Rose – friendship
Red Rose – passionate love
White Rose – purity
Yellow Rose – zealous or jealousy
Sunflower – adoration
Violet – faithfulness

Note the less savory symbols, like Lavender’s “distrust”. Other such insults include Amaryllis’s “haughtiness”, Peony’s “anger”, and Yellow Carnation’s “you have disappointed me.”

Flowers have been used as symbolism in art and literature as well. Authors including Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Emily Bronte used flower language in their works, and Pre-Raphaelites commonly used symbolic flowers in their pieces, like in John Everett Millais’s painting Ophelia.

Sources:

More extensive list of flower symbolism

Wikipedia