Notes From Babel

Lousy Imagery: “Icing on the Cake”

with 8 comments

What does it mean to get “icing on the cake”?  First, imagine choking down a dry slab of cake bread, and then consider whether the “icing” is just an unexpected nicety, as the following definitions and examples suggest:

Thefreedictionary.com defines the expression alternatively as “an extra enhancement,” and “something good that is added to another good thing,” and gives the examples:

  • “Oh, wow! A tank full of gas in my new car. That’s icing on the cake!”
  • “Your coming home for a few days was the icing on the cake.”
  • “He was delighted to have his story published – getting paid for it was just icing on the cake.”

NinjaWords.com defines it as “Something wonderful at the end of something good,” and gives the example:

  • “I managed to win the marathon, but the icing on the cake was when my husband proposed to me as soon as I crossed the finish line.”

English-for-Students.com defines it as “An additional benefit to something already good,” and gives the example:

  • “After the gorgeous sunrise, the rainbow is just icing on the cake.”

YourDictionary.com defines it as “An additional benefit to something already good,” and gives the example:

  • “All these letters of congratulation are icing on the cake.”

Wordnik.com defines it as “Something wonderful at the end of something good,” yet offers a bewildering example, apparently applying the expression at a high level of abstraction:

  • “I’ve been frustrated anyway, and this is just the icing on the cake ya know.”

I suppose if you really wanted to cause synapse misfires in your reader’s brain, you could also say, “I was excited to get my job promotion; the pay raise was just salt in the wound.”

ClicheSite.com offers probably the best definition: “The best part of an offer, usually presented at the end of the offer.”  This best captures the actual imagery of the cake and the icing—the best part, not applied till the last, that enhances the entire offering.  But this understanding is substantially narrower than the overused applications currently tossed about unthinkingly.

Thus, “icing on the cake” is probably another example of a tired metaphor past the end of its useful life.

[The imagery is truly awful if tres leches cake comes to mind. Icing would truly be “too much of a good thing.”]

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Written by Tim Kowal

August 23, 2010 at 5:00 am

Posted in Language

8 Responses

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  1. The last — narrow — definition is good and shows that the analogy in and of itself is not flawed. The real problem is our tendency to use language ever more loosely, which leads to less clear thinking, which leads to even looser language… ad infinitum. An interesting irony is that the sharper a metaphor is, the more likely it will contribute to this process. My current pet peeve is advertisers’ obsession with the word “decadent”.

    Mason

    August 23, 2010 at 9:31 am

    • I hadn’t thought about the abuse of “decadent,” but you’re right. They might as well describe the treats as “depraved” or “debauched.” They might be applicable in a whimsical or comedic sense, but not in a descriptive sense (i.e., if you mean to describe something “good”).

      Tim Kowal

      August 23, 2010 at 10:47 am

      • For the record, my number one pet peeve of all times is “I could care less.”

        Mason

        August 23, 2010 at 2:07 pm

        • I meant “of all time” heh.

          Mason

          August 23, 2010 at 2:08 pm

        • I started to keep a list of horrible manglings of the English language that I have come across. “I could care less” is surely among the most ubiquitous. Here are a couple other horrible examples:

          I’d of upgraded by now….
          For all intensive purposes….

          This is what happens when people don’t actually care about words. They just become amorphous sounds.

          Tim Kowal

          August 23, 2010 at 2:19 pm

        • along these lines, my two favorite student examples of all time:

          egnolage = acknowledge
          aunts sisters = ancestors

          Mason

          August 23, 2010 at 6:05 pm

  2. sorry for blowing up your comments page, but have you ever read Richard Lederer’s “World History According to My Students”?

    http://www.mendosa.com/history.html

    Mason

    August 23, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    • This is hysterical.

      “Moses led them to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread, which is bread made without any ingredients.” There are more miracles in the Bible than I realized.

      “Actually, Homer was not written by Homer but by another man of that name.” For a wrong answer, it’s very intriguing.

      “Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock.” The leading cause of death among males.

      Tim Kowal

      August 23, 2010 at 10:58 pm


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