What a blow to national pride: cake is a loanword from Scandinavian, and cookie has been taken over from Dutch! The story of cake is full of dangerous corners, as will become immediately obvious. Anyone who begins to learn Swedish soon discovers that the Swedish for cake is kaka. The plural kakor is tolerable, but the singular is revolting. How can anyone eat a thing called kaka, enjoy it, and ask for more? Apparently, one can. Latin cacare (the infinitive; the first person singular is caco) means “defecate,” a word that has spread far and wide; it occurs not only in Romance but also in Slavic and Celtic. The English verb cack (the same meaning) has some currency only in dialects, but bookish borrowings with this root from Latin, usually via French, were at one time rather numerous. Only cacophony “discordant sound” is still alive.
Cacare looks like a baby word (ka-ka, wee-wee, pee-pee, lu-lu, poo-poo, and their ilk are near universal). One can easily imagine that not only the action but also the product of defecation was called ka-ka. What then is the source of the culinary meanings: Swedish kaka (continuing in English as cake) and German Kuchen with a different vowel? Kaka first turned up in Middle English texts in the 13th century, and this look like a loanword from Scandinavian; however, Old English had cecil, a diminutive form of the unattested coc– and a counterpart of cookie, which is a diminutive of Dutch koek (in cecil and coc-, the root vowel was long; the same holds for the oldest form of German Kuchen). It follows that some cognate of cake existed in English from time immemorial.
When words are identical in sound and sense in Romance and Germanic, the causes of overlapping are not many. Perhaps the words are onomatopoeic (approximately like cackle and cluck); they are similar the world over. This does not seem to be the case here, for cakes do not produce any sound even when eaten. Or we witness parallel development. If cake has always meant “a piece of baked food,” such a coincidence (identical but unrelated names for the same object in Germanic and Romance) is improbable. Finally, the word may have been borrowed (from Romance into Germanic or from Germanic into Romance), and a loan from Romance has been proposed to explain the similarity between the forms. As ill luck would have it, nothing is known about the way of penetration of the alleged loanword, and the etymology of the Romance words is also obscure. Since in both Romance and Germanic the name for “cake” begins with k-, we are not dealing with descendants of an ancient Indo-European form, because, in the process of becoming Germanic, k would have turned into h. Therefore, dictionaries call the “ulterior history” of cake obscure. But the situation is not as bad as it seems.
First of all, cake does not always designate a food; for example, cow cake, also called cow pat, means “a piece of dung.” This circumstance rules out the possibility of kinship between cake and cook. Second, the oldest cakes were flat. In the anthologized story of King Alfred’s burning cakes and being chided by a housewife unaware of her visitor’ identity, cakes were certainly flat, as pancakes still are, and there is some reason to believe that “flat object” was at least one of the original senses of cake. If we take into consideration that, outside English, kak– coexists with kok– as the name of the cake, we will notice Swedish koka and Norwegian kok ~ koke “lump of earth; lump of snow; cow cake,” that is, something “caked together,” though not necessarily flat, for “cake” may be a heap, more often small. Such is Engl. dialectal cock “a heap of hay in the field; of dung or turf, (rarely of grain),” another word with -o– in the middle, and also borrowed from Scandinavian. Swedish dialectal cockle “round stone” (distinct from Engl. cockle “mollusk”) is akin to cock “heap.” Even coke(s) “charred coal” may, despite some difficulties its vowel presents, be part of this family, though dictionaries, ever fearful of disagreeing with the OED, offer a derivation from Engl. dialectal colk “the core (of an apple)” or say “origin unknown.”
One of the first readers of my Word Origins… and How We Know Them complained that he had expected entertaining histories but felt like going to college again. Poor, benighted former student! Entertainment is to him like being tickled: once a feather touches his nostrils, he sneezes and giggles happily. He has never been taught that the greatest thrill comes from following a researcher’s thoughts. At the risk of incurring the wrath of this gentleman, I will again say something that may provide an inadequate amount of “fun.” In the history of sounds, grammatical forms, and words, linguists resort to two methods. One is called internal reconstruction. This method presupposes juxtaposition of facts in the same language. Thus, when we notice that cake is food, possibly flat (as in pancake), or something flat, though not food at all (as in cow cake), we stay within English and use internal reconstruction. But when we look at other languages (in our case, Swedish and Norwegian) and draw conclusions from the circumstance that some cognates of cake designate small heaps, lumps, and round stones, we use the comparative method.
The ideal situation occurs when the results of both methods point in the same direction. This, I think, is what we observe in the etymology of cake. Cake and its related forms (with the vowel –o-) seem to have been coined with the meaning “lump; heap; mud cake,” possibly, a baby word (kaka ~ koka) and, not improbably, with reference to a child’s “poop.” It could hardly be expected (here comes the real fun) that the unappetizing meaning of kaka would be allowed to coexist with the specialized meaning “piece of food” and even become the main one. Yet this is what happened early on. A similar case is German Fladen “fritter” and “a piece of cow dung” (again “something flat”). The connection between Germanic kaka, Latin cacare, and the Romance names for “cake” is less clear, but kak- ~ kok– are so firmly integrated into the vocabulary of English and its sister languages that they appear to be native. This is all. Take the cake if you don’t mind the consequences.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”