That takes the cake

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A few days ago I said that a presentation “takes the cake“, meaning it was great. Now I just saw that Macmillan defines “take the cake” like this:

take the cake

to be the worst, most shocking, or most annoying example of something
I’ve heard some ridiculous excuses before, but that takes the cake.

Isn’t it interesting and strange how a phrase can be used ironically to mean the opposite? In German I would say “das schärfste sein”, “den Vogel abschießen”. Depending on the context, your tone of voice and your relationship to the people you are talking to the meaning will change. Irony is one of the defining types of communication … in my life, at least. In fact, I didn’t even realize I was being ironic. It’s interesting to see that the Urban Dictionary only lists the positive meaning.

About the Urban Dictionary: Founded in 1999 by college student Aaron Peckham as a parody of the dictionary, features definitions written by people from all over the world. Since then, Urban Dictionary has been cited in court, in graduation speeches, and by countless news media outlets, including CNN and Time magazine. Aaron listens for the newest words and phrases in San Francisco, California.

So if the Urban Dictionary meaning is the ironic one and it is so widespread, when does it stop being ironic? Hey, and why doesn’t Macmillan allow for both meanings? Could it be an American English/British English thing, too? Must ask Vicki Hollett about it, she’s Learning to speak ‘merican.


2 Responses

  1. Oh Holly, this is so interesting.

    I don’t think ‘takes the cake’ featured in my idolect before I started learning to speak ‘merican. I’d have most likely said ‘takes the biscuit’.

    The thing that seems common to the meaning of both the expressions is ‘the number one’, ‘the utmost’, ‘the most extreme’ but whether they have positive or negative connotations seems to vary a bit to me. ‘Takes the biscuit’ = generally BrE – generally ironic. ‘Takes the cake’ = generally AmE – could be ironic or not.

    So I think Macmillan’s definition and example for ‘takes the cake’ would fit the bill pretty well for ‘takes the biscuit’, but I have qualms about it for ‘takes the cake’. Like you, I’d be searching for context, tone of voice, relationship to check.

    Might Macmillan have overstepped the mark a bit here and presumed the two varieties correalated more closely than they do? Or possibly my BrE is getting tainted and some other BrE speakers can put us right.

  2. Dear Vicki,

    Thanks very much for this!

    So “that takes the cake” in the Urban Dictionary could either be sweetly innocent or a curious case of double irony… whew! Any AmE speakers reading this? What do you think?

    If you go ahead with it, your research into irony is bound to be great fun and cause a big think 🙂

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