Taking the biscuit

Posted by James Briggs on December 17, 2001

In Reply to: Taking the biscuit posted by Bruce Kahl on December 16, 2001

: : I'm sure that this has come up before, but why does something that is an extreme, and more often the worst of all cases, "just take the biscuit"?

: Here in the US we would say "take the cake" meaning to take first prize or be judged the winner.
: The origin of these sayings almost certainly lies in childhood contests where the winner's prize is a cake or biscuit, but modern use of the terms is almost exclusively ironic -- someone "takes the cake" when their conduct is shocking, surprising, or sets a new low in ethics.

In the UK both 'cake' and 'biscuit' are used, and are virtually interchangeable. 'Cake', however, almost certainly predates 'biscuit'. certainly if one accepts the Aristotle connection mentioned below:

Cake: When someone takes the cake they are regarded as having come first in some, often trivial, activity or other. Most authorities consider that this saying goes back to the days of slavery in the USA. The slaves used to hold competitions to see which couple could produce the most elegant walk. The best promenaders won a prize, almost always a cake. The extravagant walk required for this type of competition came to be called a Cakewalk and this gave rise to the old fashioned expression "it's a cakewalk". However the meaning later came to emphasise the trivial nature of the competition and began to imply that the effort needed was minor and of little account. In consequence the modern saying "it's a piece of cake" could well be based on these old customs.
There is a much older possible origin, going back to the ancient Greeks. A "cake" in those times was a toasted cereal bound together with honey. It was given to the most vigilant man on night watch. Aristotle is quoted as having written in "The Knights": "if you surpass him in impudence, then we take the cake".