Some phrases seem so completely unrelated to the literal words used to make them, we wonder how someone ever thought to put the words together. Most of these phrases made sense when they were created and added to the day’s popular lexicon, but language and usage changed so much since they were created, the original meanings get lost. I thought it would be fun to look into where some of these phrases originated. Luckily, the obsessive reference book collector in me happened to pick up a copy of Writer’s Library’s, “The Facts On File Dictionary of Cliche’s” when my favorite bookstore was closing and liquidating its remaining inventory of books. (Yes, I’m still bitter about that.)
According to this book, the term, “piece of cake” originated from a mid-19th century “promenading” competition called the “cakewalk.” (Yes, I looked up “promenading,” which means a leisurely walk or stroll. How a competition can be contrived from this is beyond me, but…moving on.) The winners of this competition was the couple devising the most intricate or appealing steps (to…I guess WALK from Point A to Point B?) and were awarded a cake as a prize.
By the early 20th century, the term had been shortened to “cakewalk” to convey the same meaning: something easily accomplished. The 1930s saw the phrase reverting to “piece of cake” without the correlation of the intricately choreographed strut from here to there.
The Brits adopted both sayings, “piece of cake” and “cakewalk” in World War II to signify and easy mission. I guess the Brits figured simply strutting from here to there wasn’t an accomplishment worthy of such a colorful phrase.
A similar phrase, “easy as pie,” means the same thing in modern vernacular: requiring little or no effort. This phrase developed to signify the difference between baking a pie and eating it. Baking the pie requires a significant amount of skill and effort, whereas eating the pie requires none. This phrase only dates back to early 20th century, so “piece of cake” was first.
Funny what weird people like me think about, huh?