Sunday, April 27, 2014

In which we "take the cake"

Brief notes, my fatheads. The Josh sauvignon blanc is very good, not as powerfully grassy as our delicious New Zealand sauvignon blancs, but good. Retail, about $13.

Next, Aristophanes. And why not? Get a load of this.

EURIPIDES: He could sit in the assembly with all the women, and speak in my defence, if necessary.
MNESILOCHUS: What, openly? Or in disguise?
EURIPIDES: Disguised. Dressed up in women's clothes.
MNESILOCHUS: What a magnificent idea! That's really up to your best standard. For downright cunning, we take the cake, I must say.

This is from Aristophanes' The Poet and The Women, better known to Luciaphils -- lovers of E. F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia novels, circa 1939 -- and perhaps to the world as the Thesmophoriazusae, or "the women celebrating the Thesmophoria." The festival was one of those strange ancient ones in which women gathered to dance, praise a god or goddess, freak out, and maybe kill random animals or men. Luciaphils remember that Lucia reads the play and quotes it briefly in The Worshipful Lucia, when she is being superb about Mapp's "wind-egg" baby. My fatheads, you simply must read the books.

Anyway, we are much struck, aren't we? by Aristophanes saying, 2,500 years ago, that something "takes the cake." The translator of our 1964 Penguin classics edition, David Barrett, adds a simple footnote. He says, "The phrase is a literal translation from the Greek. Perhaps the only phrase from Aristophanes to have found its way into English."

Now how extraordinary. Or, "absolutely too straordinario," as Lucia would put it. What cake? -- a Greek cake? Made of what? Were there really occasions or ceremonies in ancient Greece when cakes were prizes, and so the image of being awarded one would be vivid in the language, and pass untouched to us?

Yes, it seems so, but you must dig a little to find out more. If you consult your dictionary under "cake" or "take," because sometimes dictionaries unpack idioms you know, -- or if you consult your Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (Sir Paul Harvey, 1937 -- gad, how old my books are, but at least they are free of political correctness) under "Aristophanes," you find no asseverations that "take the cake" came straight into our language from the Thesmophoriazusae. Modern foolers-about with the Internet who notice the expression do a bit of digging of their own, and all seem to quote and re-quote two bits of information regarding it: one, that it comes originally from Aristophanes yes, but from another play of his called The Knights ("if you surpass him in impudence the cake is ours"); and two, that it also derives from 19th century southern American "cake-walking" dances popular among plantation slaves. These cake walks seem to have been exciting, intensely competitive, demanding country dances, in which finely dressed couples strutted and pranced on a strictly demarcated floor, and were judged for their grace and synchronization of movement. The winners took home a cake, sometimes presented by the visiting white master. Everybody who mentions the cake walk seems to tack on one more American source for our take-the-cake phrase, a sentence from an 1847 story about horse racing ("the winning horse take [sic] the cakes"). All seem to agree generally that "take the cake," even if birthed by a Greek comic master poet in antiquity, is mostly an Americanism.   

I use the term "foolers about with the Internet" to distinguish those who have uncovered these two items, from we who go deeper and are therefore -- I decree it -- researchers. Wondrous Google books will let you find two more things. It will let you have a look at The Thesmophoriazusae of Aristophanes, published by Benjamin Bickley Rogers, MA, in 1904. Mr. Rogers doesn't even bother translating the play into English. It was a scholarly era, his publisher was Oxford: he intends you to read in Greek, he proffering notes, mostly about Greek usage but that is all. At their proper place his notes tell us "a πνραμους" -- transliterated, this I think is pnramous?-- "was a cake of which the principal ingredients were parched wheat and boiled honey, and which is specially known as the prize awarded to the man who in an all-night drinking bout, with all his companions asleep around him, kept awake till sunrise...." Query, then who awarded the cake? Ah, perhaps that is the point. You took it ... Mr. Rogers does allow Aristophanes borrowed the phrase from his own Knights. When wondrous Google books also lets you peek at A Dictionary of Cliches: a Word-Lover's Guide to 4,000 Overused Phrases, by Christine Ammer, you find there the drinking-bout cake and θεζμοφοριαζουςαι, the Thesmophoriazusae, again. We painstakingly type out Greek letters here because we think Lucia would happily and loftily do so. Typeit is as wondrous as anything else online. I wish it had more than 1,100 likes on Facebook.

So should we conclude that both foolers-about and researchers are right about the origins of "take the cake," and that it comes from Aristophanes, after "a strange lapse" of millenia, via the American south? Or is it possible that two civilizations thousands of years apart happened to coin an identical idiom, because both sometimes gave cakes as prizes?

And we would perhaps like to know how to make this antique cake. Alas, it seems we are fated only to learn that its ingredients were the parched wheat and honey. We should remember that parching means to dry out through exposure to heat, not -- as we might intuit -- to parboil. The purpose is to slough off indigestible husks from wheat kernels. James Augustus St. John, in his History of the Manners and Customs of Ancient Greece, Volume 3 (London, 1842) calls the mysterious Greek cake "the Chaerine," and the all-night festival the "Panuchia." In her chapter on baking Madeleine Kamman in The New Making of a Cook tells us that parched cereals, perhaps eaten out of the hand like nuts or in time crushed, mixed with water, and drunk, represented mankind's earliest steps on the road to bread making. For that matter it was also the road to beer.

This leads us back to drink, and to that photo above of the nice Josh sauvignon blanc, and our asseveration that we were going to just do "brief notes." We intended to unpack other topics of interest but we got -- like a suitcase? -- carried away. Here is a new beer for you, to sip while you ponder whether or not to finish reading The Poet and the Women. Very strange. At the end there is a character called simply a Scythian, whom the translator makes to talk like Chico Marx, in non-stop "I break-a you face" style. Perhaps Scythians were the roughneck immigrants of ancient Athens.

Round Barn Brewery Kolsch style ale. Sweet, fresh, not too bitter, and from Michigan. Retail, about $10 for a 6 pack. 


  1. Thanks for this post. I wound up here, as it happens, by googling for more information on the connection between Aristophanes and "takes the cake," after reading the very translation of "The Poet and the Women" that you cite. You've answered my questions: I was curious what sort of Greek cake Aristophanes had in mind, and who was supposed to "take" it. It sounds like we may never know whether the idiom was adopted from the Greek or coined twice independently. Quite a coincidence if it was! (And, hah, I thought the same thing about the Scythian sounding like Chico Marx, but I assumed I was just being influenced by my old Greek Lit professor, who used to say that Greek comedy was a lot like Marx Brothers comedy -- full of wordplay and chaos.)

  2. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting! I am glad if my foolings-about answered some questions for you. One does one's best.


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