What does "Let Them Eat Cake" Mean?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

According to historical legend, Marie Antoinette's cry of, "Let them eat cake!" was the straw that broke the camel's back during the French Revolution. The story goes that Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, was informed that her subjects were starving because they had no bread. She was so pampered and out of touch with the reality of life for the poor that she suggested that they eat cake instead, which is what she would have done if she were out of bread. Marie Antoinette was convicted of treason and executed in 1793, months after her husband, King Louis XVI, had suffered the same fate.

Marie Antoinette, who is credited with saying "let them eat cake," was executed by guillotine in 1793.
Marie Antoinette, who is credited with saying "let them eat cake," was executed by guillotine in 1793.

In reality, the phrase predates the reign of Marie Antoinette. Jean-Jaques Rousseau, a philosopher who paved the way for democracy and socialism, wrote of a "princess" who said, "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche," when she heard that the peasants had no bread. While brioche is not quite as extravagant as cake, the phrase basically has the same meaning. The story told by Rousseau served to illustrate the vast gap between the rich and the poor of his time, but it was written when Marie Antoinette was only a child and not yet Queen of France.

The term "let them eat cake" dates back to the time of the French Revolution.
The term "let them eat cake" dates back to the time of the French Revolution.

No one knows the real origin of the phrase "let them eat cake," but it may have been a rally against the exploitation of the poor, rather than a flippant comment revealing the speaker's ignorance. In 18th century France, bakers were required by law to sell brioche and other fancy breads at the same price as regular bread if the latter was out of stock. Therefore, the original statement may have meant "do not let the poor starve if plain bread is not available."

One biographer has claimed that Louis XIV's wife, Marie-Therese, was the first to utter "Let them eat cake," but it remains unclear whether the story is strictly factual or simply a metaphor of the decadence of the French aristocracy.

One biographer contends it was actually the wife of Louis XIV, Marie-Therese, who first said "Let them eat cake."
One biographer contends it was actually the wife of Louis XIV, Marie-Therese, who first said "Let them eat cake."
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


Whether or not it was said, or whether or not she meant brioche (egg bread,) is completely irrelevant, actually. The point of this isn't in this thing or that thing. It is about the relationship between those who have and those who have less.

People tend to project their own daily experiences onto the lives of others. It is basic psychology, really. The fact the plight was there because of this sort of projection or even perceived projection is the relevant point. No doubt, even the sensation of impropriety will cause anger and fury. It is unlikely that those who were able to help saw this enough or felt it their responsibility to do so.

This happens even today. And that alone is reason for this quote to be remembered.


Though not absolutely certain what the most accepted context or usage of the phrase is today, I have always thought it was to reference a person who is so out of touch with those below them on the totem pole that they can't comprehend not having access to what they have, i.e., "you can't afford bread, eat cake instead."

I don't think any usage is incorrect, since if you use it in a conversation with someone, the context of your point will be clear already and the person will understand.


I believe the only answer that makes sense is that the reference to "cake" was a reference to the by-product or "dregs" of the baking process. She was saying "Then let them eat the scrapings out of the bottom of the barrel." It doesn't make sense that if they didn't have bread to eat, then her answer would be to give them fine pastry. It doesn't fit.


@anon106397: The untranslated, original quote from Rousseau is "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche". Brioche is far from burnt breadcrumbs in most instances.


I have heard of a different explanation for the term cake. There is a byproduct of burnt breadcrumbs left over in the oven after the bread is taken out. I have heard from a french friend that this is what Marie Antoinette was referring to.


@abiane - There seems to be a -lot- of speculation around the origins of this phrase, that's for sure. While I've heard it in the context you've used it in as well, I have always known it to mean what the article states: resorting to a different item of nourishment.

Although this article seems to depict it in such a way that's open for interpretation, one could also say that the phrase is a means of not caring about others as peasants would most likely not have cake if they didn't have bread.


While there is a lot of speculation around this phrase, I have always heard that it's kind of a "whatever" statement. What I mean is that I've always understood it to be a phrase that people use in order to prove to people that something isn't bothering them. Sort of an "oh well, who cares" sort of phrase.

Now I know that this might not actually be the case and perhaps some people have been misusing the phrase all along! Good to know.

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