What Does the Phrase ‘Let Them Eat Cake’ Mean?

Talk About Ironic!

Marie Antoinette was said to be a big fan of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who first penned the phrase Qu’ils mangent de la brioche (Let them eat brioche―a form of expensive bread).

Tell me what comes to your mind when you come across this phrase: “If they don’t have bread, let them eat cake.” Marie Antoinette and the insensitivity of the French monarchy, perhaps? 

This phrase, popularly believed to have been coined during or before the French Revolution, has been the source of quite a lot of debate and controversy, and the woman to whom this phrase is attributed, has been sincerely and passionately hated by the French of not only that time, but also today.

However, mes amis, it does not mean what we’ve all been thinking all along. An English misinterpretation and some wile ideas of a few haters have made sure the phrase stuck, but the truth is that we couldn’t have been more mistaken about what we’ve believed so confidently till now.

Meaning Today

Today, most of us have been basking in the belief that it was an insensitive and ignorant rich person (read: Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI) who remarked upon the plight of the poor, suffering people saying “If they don’t have bread, let them eat cake.” The phrase stuck, and we tend to attribute it to her whenever we come across it. There are several interpretations of this, and the reason she might have said this―some feel that she was too ignorant to understand that cake was much more expensive than bread, some feel that she couldn’t care less about what problems her subjects were facing, and some feel that she was of the opinion that their suffering had nothing to do with her personally.

More recently, the phrase ‘let them eat cake’ has been used often in a humorous vein. For instance, if a teacher awards the highest grade to only one pupil in her class and the rest are all stuck at F, the ones who didn’t fare well might say, “She’s letting us have cake!.” Or if an employer gives an appraisal only to one team of employees and the others object as to why they weren’t considered, he might say, “Let them have cake!” See what we mean?

Origin

Whatever may have been our thoughts about this until now, maybe it’s time we look at the real meaning and origin of this phrase, and spare poor Marie Antoinette the jeering. (Wait, we know she wasn’t a good queen, but we do feel sorry for the unnecessary branding of her reputation!) Firstly, the phrase isn’t even rightly translated into English. The original phrase is said to have been “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche“, which when translated, means “Let them have brioche.” Now, brioche isn’t exactly cake. It is a sweet, egg-based bread, making it less extravagant than cake, but more expensive than bread. A misinterpretation in English gave rise to “Let them eat cake“, and the phrase stuck.

Secondly, there is no evidence that it was Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and the wife of King Louis XVI, who uttered these words. It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a famous philosopher, who penned it in his autobiography, Confessions, attributing them to a ‘great princess.’ However, Marie Antoinette was only 9-10 years old at that time, lived in Austria, and wasn’t even married to the King then. She moved to France as his bride about four years later. Confessions was a fairly vague and unreliable memoir, and the extent to which Rousseau’s opinion about what the princess said is largely debatable as it may even just be an invented anecdote.

Some historians attribute this phrase to Queen Marie Thérèse, based on Rousseau’s autobiography. Marie Thérèse was the wife of King Louis XIV of France, and she lived nearly 100 years before Marie Antoinette. However, Confessions was published several decades after her death, and so this theory is rather a controversial and unreliable one. It can be concluded, however, that whether it was Marie Thérèse who said this or not, it certainly wasn’t Marie Antoinette, as the phrase was floating around even before she married Louis XVI. It is simply possible that royal politics ensured that the attribution and usage of the phrase stuck to the Austrian princess instead.

Possible Meaning

Though historians have been trying to determine the real meaning of this phrase for years, only probable and possible meanings have been derived of the same.

Some experts suggest that this phrase might not have been a careless, insensitive comment at all. Instead, it might have been something on the lines of “Do not let the subjects starve.” Apparently, bakers in France at that time were ordered to sell brioche and other expensive breads which the poor normally could not afford at the same price as normal bread in case bread stocks were over. So, it might have been a comment that only suggested that the poor were entitled to brioche or other expensive breads in case the regular one was unavailable.

Regardless of what we’d been thinking about Marie Antoinette, she was a pretty tragic figure, really. It is true that her extravagant lifestyle and excessive spending was rather unacceptable to the poor who tried hard to make ends meet, and some of her enemies in France (she had plenty, considering she was Austrian and the wife of the King) may have stealthily spread rumors about her inconsideration for the poor. She was enveloped in many controversies, and this one remains the most famous of them all. Finally, she was executed after the monarchy was overthrown. Were at least some of the controversial issues surrounding her true? I guess we’ll never know.

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