Language Lovers Can 'Take the Cake'

Article excerpt

Funny how we use expressions without much idea of what they mean - or originally meant. For example: "That takes the cake!" - one of my own favorite comic-indignant exclamations - is the kind of thing you cry, with hands raised in mock horror, when a little old lady cuts in front of you in the supermarket queue; or when you hear about the latest 13-year-old to become a billionaire movie star; or about the schoolteacher just out of college who feels more than qualified to advise other teachers with decades' experience on "today's methods." Frankly, it takes the cake!

Or when, in the morning post, comes a business company's announcement that, it is happy to inform you that it is restructuring for the future - moving forward into a new and ever-more-efficient era of service to its greatly valued customers. And you know - because anyone with an ounce of nous knows - that this is doublespeak. That it actually means the company has laid off 95 percent of its work force. That the receivers are in. And that the last vestige of managerial staff now operates from a garden shed. Yet this disaster must be worded in a "positive" way! No wonder some professors of language claim that words are a device

humans have invented for the purpose of deceiving one another. Such distortion of words, well, it takes the cake.

To "take the cake," my "NTC's American Idioms Dictionary," by Richard Spears PhD, informs me, means: "....to win the prize; to be the best or the worse. (Folksy)."

I must admit I had not previously realized I might be "folksy," but there it is. (On the other hand, I think I might have written "to be the best or the worst," particularly in a book devoted to correct language.)

One of the usage examples Spears proposes is: "Well, Jane, this dinner really takes the cake! …

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