April 15, 2009

can’t have one’s cake and eat it

Posted in Idioms at 5:11 pm by Feng

can’t have one’s cake and eat it – can’t have things both ways [thefreedict]

I discovered some useful shortcuts in Visual Studio and told a colleague. Unfortunately, the shortcuts didn’t work for him because they conflicted with the emacs program that he was using. “That’s pity,” he said, “But you can’t have butter and the money of the butter”.  He is French so he was literally translating a French idiom. The English eqivalent is: You can’t have your cake and eat it.

There is also a similar saying in Chinese: you can’t have the fish and the bear palm paw at the same time (see here and here).



  1. Frank said,

    Hi Feng!

    Please enlighten me. What’s a bear palm? Why would anyone want one? (I can understand wanting a fish, eg for eating it…) Why would getting the fish prevent you from getting the bear palm, whatever it is?

  2. Feng said,


    As I looked it up in the dictionary, I think a better translation should be “bear paw”. I’ve corrected that in the post. The bear’s paw is a rare delicacy. In the ancient times, it served the Chinese emperors as a popular cuisine. The legend says that the bear’s paw is where all the nutrition condenses. It normally takes at least 2 days to stew the paw until it is soft and eatable.

    This proverb originated from a book written by an ancient Chinese philosopher called Meng Zi. He used it as an intuitive example in his book to illustrate that sometimes one must make a choice between two good things.


  3. Frank said,

    Mmh, very interesting, thank you!

    OK, so now I get the point that the bear paw is at least as desirable as the fish. What I still don’t get is what prevents you from having both! In all the other examples (having cake and eating it, having butter and its monetary counterpart, or—as in Italian—having “the full barrel and the drunken wife”) it’s pretty obvious that gaining the benefit of one automatically negates the other.

    But in the case of the bear paw? Is it somehow related to the image of bear fishing salmon in a river? But you could still let the bear catch the fish and then eat both the fish and the bear’s paw, couldn’t you? Or am I trying to see too much into this and instead is it just parental advice from the emperor’s mother as in “you can have THIS treat or THAT treat but not both, you greedy glutton, so just pick one, call yourself lucky and shut up”?

    • Feng said,

      > “you can have THIS treat or THAT treat but not both, you greedy glutton, so just pick one, call yourself lucky and shut up”?

      haha, that sounds plausible. Why can’t we have both the fish and bear paw? Maybe that’s the real question the philosopher Meng Zi left to the fellow people when he wrote the book two thousand years ago …

  4. Wing-Fung said,

    if you want a bear paw you need to go to the mountain area to hunt it, but you want a fish, you need to go to the sea, so you cant have both of them at the same time

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