What the Unabomber taught us about usage

I’ll never forget the way they caught the Unabomber.

For 17 years, he used home-made bombs to terrorise people who worked at universities, airlines and other organisations that represented the “industrial-technological system” that he hated. Then, in 1995, he sent a manifesto to the New York Times and said that he’d stop the bombing if they printed it. The Times talked to the FBI, who agreed – largely in the hope that someone would recognise the Unabomber from his writing.

Someone did.

David Kaczynski found the attitudes and the language alarmingly similar to those of his brother Theodore, who he reported – leading to arrest and conviction. One of the manifesto’s phrases in particular had stood out: “you can’t eat your cake and have it”.

Most of us say it the other way round, so Theodore Kaczynski’s version stuck out like a sore thumb.

But, if you think about the succession of events that’s often implicit in phrases of the form “do X and do Y”, it makes sense. “I’m going to eat a cake and bake it” sounds odd in a way that “I’m going to bake a cake and eat it” doesn’t.

The logic was spelled out by the Third Earl of Shaftesbury in 1711: “As ridiculous as the way of children, who eat their cake, and afterwards cry for it. They shou’d be told, as children, that they can’t eat their cake, and have it.” And the earliest example known to the OED, from John Heywood in 1562, also has it this way round: “Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?”

For his use of the phrase, Kaczynski had history and some logic on his side; you could argue that this was the correct version. I myself used to argue this. But usage changes: “you can’t have your cake and eat it” has been in the ascendant since before Kaczynski was born.

The moral of the story (apart from ‘don’t be a terrorist’) is that if you refuse to follow commonly accepted usage, your language will attract attention – and judgement. This might just make your message more powerful and memorable, but it might instead be a counterproductive distraction.

When choosing your words, don’t obsess about what’s ‘correct’. Think about what’s effective.

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  • Richard Nield  On September 17, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    Interesting post Tom. This expression long confused me, so it’s interesting to learn that there was an earlier, and more comprehensible, version. The confusion for me came from the logic that if you have your cake, then if you wish to eat it then of course you can. In a way that you couldn’t if you didn’t have your cake, or if somebody else had your cake. You get the picture.

    I also agree that switching it round now would just sow confusion among those who are used to hearing the expression and understand the sentiment. It’s just a shame it was switched round in the first place. Perhaps it was just because it scans a little better.

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