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Language Lovers Can 'Take the Cake'

Funny how we use expressions without much idea of what they mean - or originally meant. For example: ''That takes the cake!'' - one of my own favorite comic-indignant exclamations - is the kind of thing you cry, with hands raised in mock horror, when a little old lady cuts in front of you in the supermarket queue; or when you hear about the latest 13-year-old to become a billionaire movie star; or about the schoolteacher just out of college who feels more than qualified to advise other teachers with decades' experience on ''today's methods.'' Frankly, it takes the cake!

Or when, in the morning post, comes a business company's announcement that, it is happy to inform you that it is restructuring for the future - moving forward into a new and ever-more-efficient era of service to its greatly valued customers. And you know - because anyone with an ounce of nous knows - that this is doublespeak. That it actually means the company has laid off 95 percent of its work force. That the receivers are in. And that the last vestige of managerial staff now operates from a garden shed. Yet this disaster must be worded in a ''positive'' way! No wonder some professors of language claim that words are a device humans have invented for the purpose of deceiving one another. Such distortion of words, well, it takes the cake.

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To ''take the cake,'' my ''NTC's American Idioms Dictionary,'' by Richard Spears PhD, informs me, means: '' win the prize; to be the best or the worse. (Folksy).''

I must admit I had not previously realized I might be ''folksy,'' but there it is. (On the other hand, I think I might have written ''to be the best or the worst,'' particularly in a book devoted to correct language.)

One of the usage examples Spears proposes is: ''Well, Jane, this dinner really takes the cake! It's delicious.''

Another is: ''Tom really messed it up. What he did really takes the cake.''

As a self-confessed male chauvinist, I might take umbrage at the sexist nature of these comparative instances: Why would it be a woman who made a delicious dinner, and a man who ''messed up''? But what strikes me more is that the phrase ''takes the cake'' can apparently be used as praise for an achievement. I have never heard it so used - and yet this seems to have been its primary meaning.

I wonder if this might not be a case of Anglo-American divergence - that endlessly fascinating theme. Do the British today use (or misuse) what was once a congratulatory expression to mean its opposite, while Americans still, at least sometimes, stick to its original significance?

In a 1986 bathroom book by David Frost and Michael Shea called ''The Mid-Atlantic Companion, Or How to Misunderstand Americans as Much as They Misunderstand Us,'' the authors offer some examples of expressions that mean one thing in the United States and the opposite in Britain. For example, when the British say something ''went like a bomb,'' it mean that it was a triumph. Not so, apparently, stateside.

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Another example I have noticed is that Americans tend to say (on occasion): ''I could care less,'' evidently meaning what Britons mean when they say, ''I couldn't care less.'' Surely, if one cares very little indeed about something, then it is more reasonable to conclude that one ''could not care less'' than that one ''could.''

It is Spears's opinion, in fact, that either version of this expression is feasible American English. But he does label them both as ''informal.'' I am not too certain what this label means, but I can't help wondering if it is better or worse than ''folksy.''

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