It was cake

I recently discovered the blog Peaks and penguins, by a young Canadian/US couple who lived in South Korea for some years (and maybe still do). They chronicled their explorations of the mountains there, guided by the lists of 100 top mountains by the Korean Forest Service and a commercial hiking wear/gear manufacturer. (80 mountains appear on both lists and 20 are unique to each, so there’s 120 in total, which I think they explored all.) I am half disappointed that I spent so much of the time I was in Korea not exploring mountains and a quarter excited and a quarter daunted that there’s so much for me to do when I go there again (when, when, when?). And that’s just the mountains, not all the other things to do.

One of their early expeditions nearly ended badly: the weather changed, they were short on warm clothing and other provisions, and they lost their way. Fortunately they encountered a Korean hiking group who warmed them up and pointed them in the right direction. They wrote: 

Our descent was cake compared to our trials on the ridge.

Was cake, not was a piece of cake, which is an established idiom.

I haven’t been able to find any equivalent use of “was cake” (in quotation marks for exact match). There are sentences like When was cake first made?, We heard/were told there was cake and And then there was cake. But I can’t say that those bloggers are wrong; it’s very clear what they mean and is a natural shortening (<haha) of the idiom. Maybe people say it or write it in places Google can’t find.

According to Google Ngrams, is/was a piece of cake rose in usage in the mid-1970s. Without context, it’s impossible to tell how many occurrences before and after then were literal usages of the phrase, and how many were idiomatic. I had always assumed that it is/was a piece of cake was, in turn, a shortening of it is/was as easy as eating a piece of cake, but Ngrams shows no particular usage of as easy as eating.

Is/was a piece of cake seems to be used/usable in singular forms: My homework was a piece of cake, ?My exams were pieces of cake, My exams were a piece of cake


9 thoughts on “It was cake

  1. I always found “piece of cake” comparable to “easy as pie”, but have never heard any explicit reference to eating either one.

    There’s also “easy as taking candy from a baby,” which is a rather horrible choice of analogy.

    One expression whose origin mystifies me is “piece of work” as being an intense disparagement of someone as a human being. It would seem to derive from Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man,” but I can’t see how we got here from there. It also could be a euphemism for “piece of crap” (or something stronger), influenced by the aforesaid Shakespearean phrase, perhaps?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Neither ‘piece of cake’ nor ‘easy as pie’ is a natural idiom for me. I can’t remember ever using them myself or the last time I heard someone say them in real life.
    Did you see the Simpsons’ episode Who shot Mr Burns? Slightly related, at Hong Kong airport we were behind young parents and child who had obviously been to the Disneyland there. The child had some Disney toy and just simply wasn’t ever going to give it to the attendant to be security scanned. In the end the attendant gave up.
    I remember people saying ‘as easy as falling off a log’, which is easy to do accidentally and very hard to do (convincingly) deliberately.


  3. No, I haven’t seen the Simpsons episode “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” – either of 2 parts, apparently. Can you summarize how it’s relevant to what we’re discussing here?


    • Mr Burns’s latest money-making scheme is building a giant movable disc which blocks the sun from Springfield, so that the residents have no option but to buy power from his nuclear power station. He says to his assistant Smithers ‘It’ll be like taking candy from a baby’.
      (Mostly spoiler) Later, he meets Maggie Simpson, who is sucking on a lollipop. He attempts to take it from her and finds it very difficult, with unintended consequences.


      • Also, Google Ngrams shows that ‘like taking candy’ is more common than ‘(easy) as taking candy’ and ‘(easier) than taking candy’.


  4. When I was choir director in Natick MA US, I had a regular member who always referred to a work the choir (or he) could execute successfully as a “piece of cake.” So I heard that a lot.


  5. An interesting usage. It appears to have been around for a while: the OED and GDoS date cake (adj.) to the late 1960s in US colloquial usage (e.g., Ellroy, L.A. Confidential: “Compared to what she’s been through, this thing should be cake”). And the OED offers the following from 1911 in Harold Bell Wright’s The Winning of Barbara Worth: “Ut’s men ye’ll be wantin’…; wan to handle the greasers, which is cake to me, an’ wan to boss the mule skinners, which is pie for Tex.” (It notes, “The use of the noun in this sense is often difficult to distinguish from the predicative adjectival use.”)

    The same dictionaries (and M-W) date piece of cake in the “something easy” sense to the mid-1930s. I find these sources – and Mark Davies’s corpora – generally more informative and reliable than Google’s Ngram Viewer, which has its uses but is full of metadata errors, OCR glitches, search snafus, etc.

    The noun cakewalk is also worth a mention in this context. I’m not sure if it influenced the idiomatic use of piece of cake, but it gained its figurative use (from the original dance sense) back in the 19th century.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. I don’t have access to any source with systematic historical citations. I was/am aware of cakewalk but decided that I wouldn’t be able to do it sensitive justice.


  6. Pingback: Link love: language (77) | Sentence first

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