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Re: Cakewalk?

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sat Oct 16, 2010 7:16 am

The older CAKEWALK posting has been merged with Mel’s newer one. – Forum Moderator (a.k.a. Ken G)

Above, contributors have provided a lot of good information on the subject. And that link in the second posting from the top, if accurate, is a treasure-trove of calkwalk history.

But I agree with Bill Bates, above, when he says, “although we learn where the word came from, we still have no definitive answer on where the modern meaning came from...”

I believe I have the answer to this important and perplexing question but right now I’m beat and must go beddy-bye. But I will post my findings on the tomorrow.

That brings to mind what happened with Fermat’s Last Theorem which says that no three positive integers x, y, and z can satisfy the equation x^n + y^n = Z^n for and any positive integer ‘n’ greater than two. Fermat wrote in one of his math books that he had a wonderful proof for this but it was too large to fit in the margin. He then proceeded to die. Now Fermat was a great mathematician and if he said he had a proof, no one could take that lightly. And for the next 358 years mathematicians all over the world tried to come up with one and couldn’t, until a Princeton mathematician finally did it in 1995. And one can only conclude that Fermat was mistaken and couldn’t possibly have had a proof – the very complex mathematical tools required to prove the theorem, just didn’t exist in Fermat’s day.

So, if I die during the night, Wordwizards should be pleased to hear that they won't have to struggle for many years to find the answer, but it might take several thousand seconds (a couple of hours), or even more. On the other hand, maybe I’m mistaken and just think I have the answer. And if that’s the case and if I should pass on during the night, then someday someone might have the extreme honor of having solved KEN’S LAST POSTING (if a solution exists).

Ken G –October 15, 2010

Re: Cakewalk?

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat Oct 16, 2010 7:39 am

If you survive the night, Ken (as I sincerely hope you do), on the basis of your previous research I can at least be pretty confident that you will cite your sources, unlike what exists behind the link in the second posting from the top. :-)
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Re: A cakewalk

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat Oct 16, 2010 8:51 am

Edwin F Ashworth wrote:Didn't they originate with Bach's Battenburg Concertos, and find their fullest development in the popular late Victorian tea dance?
Other possible candidates are:

Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Flight of the butter cookie'; Vivaldi's 'Four seedcakes'; Verdi's 'La donut è mobile'; Copland's 'Fastnacht for the common man'; Rachmaninov's 'Ratafia on a theme of pancake blini'; Handel's 'Arrival of the queen of shortbread'; Tchaikovsky's 'Romeo and jelly roll'; Beethoven's 'Macaroon fight sonata'; Mozart's 'Rondo alla torte'; Ponchielli's 'Dance of the oreos'; and Bach's 'Tostada and fugue'.
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Re: Cakewalk?

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Sat Oct 16, 2010 7:46 pm

Not forgetting Delias Rich Fruit Cake.

Re: Cakewalk?

Post by Wizard of Oz » Sun Oct 17, 2010 11:15 am

.. but Ken, Lizbeth Solander found a simple solution for Fermat's Last Theorem in the Girl Who Played With Fire .. but having found the solution promptly lost interest in it ..

WoZ loves Lizbeth .. tru
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Re: Cakewalk?

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Sun Oct 17, 2010 2:41 pm

Give me a margin big enough, and I'll prove the world.

Re: Cakewalk?

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Oct 18, 2010 6:03 am

Edwin, Or, you may end up with a very large margin of error!

Ken – October 17, 2010

Re: Cakewalk?

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Oct 18, 2010 7:19 am


Here’s a typical (of the ones I read) discussion of CAKEWALK by a well-regarded etymologist:


CAKE WALK [[CAKEWALK / CAKE-WALK]]: Something easy to do; a pleasure to perform; a walk-around dance competition. This expression originated among Southern Blacks sometime in the early 1800s. The original cake walk involved a sort of promenade or march by high-stepping and high-kicking couples. The couple who demonstrated the most style were awarded the cake; in other words they took the cake [[which as it turns out predates ‘cakewalk’]]. In time cakewalk became a popular dance form, and apparently from that it took on the meaning of something enjoyable and easy to do. It retains that connotation today.

A problem with the above derivation is that by the time CAKEWALK took on the meaning of ‘something easy to do’ (1890s) it had become very competitive, athletic, and complicated and, in fact, something difficult to do and perhaps more of a ‘dance’ than a ‘walk.’ Even in its earlier, slower and less athletic forms it still required grace and skill, and with competitions involving large numbers of contestants, winning was no easy matter.

20th CENTURY WORDS by noted etymologist John Ayto: “CAKE-WALK noun: A strutting dance, popular in the early years of the century [[20th]] based on a promenade or walk in which the participants who performed the most complicated or outlandish steps won a cake as a prize.”

BREWER'S DICTIONARY OF PHRASE & FABLE: “A dance based on a march with intricate steps, . . .

WORD DETECTIVE by Evan Morris said, “Since ‘cakewalking’ demanded both skill and grace, victory in the contest was rarely a ‘cakewalk’ in our modern ’easy’ sense.” He also went on to say, “The modern use of cakewalk came from the boxing ring, where a very easy victory over an outclassed opponent was likened to a refined cakewalk compared to the ordinarily prolonged and brutal nature of the matches. By 1877, ‘cakewalk’ had graduated from the boxing ring and acquired its general meaning of ‘an effortless victory.’”

I think that Evan Morris has the right idea, but I would argue that he might not be entirely correct – his style is to do very careful research, and he’s mostly right, but he has a habit of not providing his sources. However, in this instance I was able to find his source which was the redoubtable —


CAKEWALK noun Originally Boxing: An easy victory; (hence) an easy task.
[1877 “Walking for Dat Cake (popular song title).”] [[Note: The HDAS has this citation in brackets which means that it is not an example of ‘an easy victory,’ but is just an example from an earlier era of the use of the word. So Evan Morris’ 1877 date for the transition from boxing to ‘an easy victory or task’ is fallacious. The actual HDAS quote provided illustrating the transition – if, in fact, the transition was from boxing – was from 1897]]
<1897 “It’s a cake-walk for Jim . . .Fitz hasn’t a chance.”—Fight of the Century by Siler & Houseman, page 46>

Below I discuss and list quotes in two categories. The first refers the literal ‘dance’ and the second to the figurative ‘easy victory/task.’


In this category I found two examples (from 1874 and 1877) which predate the 1879 quote provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, Dictionary of American Regional English and all those who copied it from them. The cakewalk was evidently an extremely popular 19th-century event and one would even have to say it became a craze by the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What had begun as a more subdued cakewalk with the participants being local folks out for an enjoyable time, soon included traveling professionals giving performances and exhibitions, as well as bigtime competitions with the prizes being far more than a cake (see 1892 quote above). The CAKEWALK had evolved from a garden party, picnic, etc., promenade event into a wildly popular dance which, incidentally, was often accompanied by ragtime (see here for some further details).

The ‘dance’ quotes I found in the news archives, numbered in the many thousands. So rather than list a whole raft of quotes, I’ll just provide some of the earlier ones:
<1874 “The festival, cake-walk and exhibition held by the colored people last week closed on Friday evening. . . The music, vocal and instrumental, was good and highly appreciated. The cake-walk in which ten couples competed participated, came off on Friday night, and the judges awarded the cake , which was a very beautiful and costly one, to Mrs. Sarah and John Jackson.”—The Indiana Progress (Pennsylvania), 22 January, page 5> [[Note: This quote from my archive search predates the 1879 quote provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), and others.]]

<1877 “Seven couples competed in a great cake-walk in New York Saturday night. George Ray and Mrs. Heyatt won the cake and $20 in gold.”—Boston Daily Globe, 31 December, page 2>

<1879 “Reader, didst ever attend a cake walk given by the colored folks?”—Harper’s Magazine, October, page 799/1> [[earliest quote in OED and DARE]]

<1892 “. . . the big cake-walk [[is]] to take place at Madison Square Garden, Feb. 17 . . . To the big majority of New Yorkers cake-walks are mysteries.”—The World (New York, New York), 31 January, page 8>
Note: Incidentally, the results of my fact check on the link in Bill Bate’s posting (second from the top) did not fare well. For example, the link said, “. . . in 1892 the first Cakewalk contest were [[sic]] held in a New York ballroom hosted by Richard K. Fox (Stearn's says Madison Square Garden, but it wouldn't be built for another 20 years).” Firstly, my above 1874, 1877, 1879 quotes refute their 1892 date for the ‘first cakewalk.’ And secondly, they said that Madison Square Garden wouldn’t be built for another 20 years (i.e. 1912). The first Madison Square Garden was, in fact, built in 1879 and there was most certainly a cakewalk held there in 1892 (see my above 1892 quote).


As far as this meaning of CAKEWALK, the HDAS (and Word Detective), as mentioned above, says that it originated in the sport of ‘boxing’ and they provide a quote confirming that it was used in boxing in 1897 (see quote below). But that doesn’t prove it was first used in boxing. My earlier quote from 1891 has it being used in horse racing. But again, that doesn’t necessarily prove that it was first used there either. And in my 1897 quotes (see below) I found that it was used in baseball as well as boxing. So, you takes your pick.

I think the critical question to try to answer is whether the modern meaning of cakewalk refers to:

1) The earlier more subdued dance, which was not necessarily easy, but was of a slower and more deliberate promenade form or 2) The later more acrobatic and frenzied dance form.

My feeling is that it refers to #1 and I think that Evan Morris (see above) was right when he said, “. . . where a very easy victory over an outclassed opponent was likened to a refined cakewalk.” However, according to the above evidence this could apply to horse racing or baseball, as well as boxing, or even to a political competition (see 1896 quote below) – I think the dates are too close together and the evidence to sparse to pick a definitive winner.
<1891 “The sport opened with a six-furlong dash for all ages, in which there were only three starters. Kingston was a redhot favorite at 2 to 5 . . . Reckon was thought to have a chance to beat him . . . It was a ’cakewalk’ for the favorite, the brown whirlwind just galloping home in 1:15, with Reckon second . . .”—Chicago Daily Tribune, 1 October>

<1896 “A newspaper man made the remark to a colored porter in the Kirkwood house, ‘Better climb on the McKinley [[Republican U.S. presidential candidate and then president 1897-1901]] band wagon, Allison [[Republican dark-horse candidate]] has no show.’ The porter looked up with a grin and replied, ‘Dat’s so boss; McKinley he hab a cakewalk suah.’”—Roland Record (Iowa), 22 May, page 1>

<1896 “New Bedford won a double header from the local men here this afternoon. The first game was a cakewalk . . .but the second was a battle royal from start to finish.”—Boston Globe, 22 July, page 4>

<1897 “About the Boxers: . . . Tom Tracy has been offered a chance to meet Joe Walcott at one of the New York clubs. Walcott is now getting in shape for the cakewalk which he is to hold at Malden May 13.”—SBoston Daily Globe, 30 April, page 17>

<1897 “It has dawned on the baseball public that Boston has a great team, and one with a good, big chance for the pennant, notwithstanding the fact that Baltimore was to have a cakewalk for the bunting [[pennant]] this season.”—Boston Daily Globe, 7 June, page 17>

<1897 “For a few innings Carsey pitched fairly good ball, but as he saw that the men behind him were of the Upper Sandusky class, he assumed that old-time indifference and merely ‘lobbed’ them up to the plate. The consequence was that the Giants had a cake-walk to land the honors.”—The World (New York, New York), 13 June, page 12>
So, what do I conclude? I’d say that the modern meaning of CAKEWALK originated in the late 19th century probably in reference to a sport such as boxing, horse racing, or baseball (or even a political competition) with the idea that an easy victory could be likened to the more genteel form of the cakewalk dance.

A few more things:

1) Cassell’s went off the deep end on this one when they said CAKEWALK was “Originally as WW1 military jargon, an attack or raid that met with little or no opposition.”

2) John (a.k.a. trolley) commented above that he was familiar with cakewalk as a game (like musical chairs) often used to raise money. The Dictionary of American Regional English provides the following additional CAKEWALK definitions:

a) A marching or dancing game (often a fundraising event) generally played on a marked floor, with prizes (often cakes) for those on the lucky numbers when the music stops.

b) A game similar to musical chairs.

Ken – October 17, 2010

Re: Cakewalk?

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Mon Oct 18, 2010 10:44 pm

Ken is naturally reticent to mention any connection between the cake-walk and the Olympic sport of Icing Dancing.

Re: cakewalk

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Oct 19, 2010 12:23 am

Or that other winter-related phenomenon, frosting.

Re: cakewalk

Post by Shelley » Sat Mar 28, 2015 2:06 pm

Frosting . . . with lots of curling embellishments on it. (Ok, it's a reach.)

Re: cakewalk

Post by Wizard of Oz » Wed Apr 01, 2015 3:00 am

.. I appreciate that this reply has been a long time coming but I need to post it with regard to Ken's explanation .. I worry/wonder about the following >>

1. The missing 20 years between the the dance quotes and the sport quotes .. if as Ken points out the dance had become to be considered not easy why then do the sports writers use in a way that denotes something that IS easy ??

2. Cassell may be incorrect in using the word Originally but I have little doubt it was used by WW1 soldiers to mean an easy advance.

.. and thirdly the most important fact ..

3. I would love to know more about when the musical chairs cakewalk began as for mine I see this as being the most likely parent of the modern meaning .. as was pointed out all you needed to be able to do to win was walk and stop/start ..

WoZ who prefers to eat cake
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

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