To Want the Butter and the Money From the Butter or a Month of French Idioms From A to Z

I especially like today expression because I learned its English equivalent quite soon after I moved to the States. Although it’s supposed to match the French idiom, it remains to this day a little strange to me. For some reason I never found the English idiom as explicit as the French one.







Embed from Getty Images



Originating from the end of the 19th century, this French expression illustrates how an honest dairy farmer who makes butter cannot take the money from its sale and sell it again.

In its metaphoric way it is used in France to talk of people who want to keep everything for them without leaving anything to others.

The association between Beurre (Butter) and Argent (Money) illustrates also very well how both can melt easily and quickly.


Do you agree or not that the French expression is clearer than its American counterpart?

A to Z Challenge


Have a great weekend and see you on Monday!


  1. The French version is a bit more clear to me. In fact, I always had a hard time understanding ours. I mean, if I have the cake…

  2. But of I have a cake I can eat it I think …

  3. I have never understand the English version – of course you can have your cake and eat it!! First, you get the cake somehow, so you HAVE it, then, like normal, you EAT it. It’s actually harder to see what else you would do with cake!

    • *understOOd – yes I am a native speaker and a professional English teacher.

      • I’m so relieved to read that even native speakers AND English teachers find the English expression a little odd. You can always try the French one with your students if you wish.
        In any case, thank you for stopping by and adding this comment.

  4. I do prefer the French idiom. I think it’s much clearer. I just explained the cake one to my youngest last week, and I ended up using her saved money as a better illustration. I’m not sure many people relate to the cake metaphor.

    • Kids respond well to good metaphors, but this one is a little tricky, I agree. During this month of April I have sometimes favored the English expression to the French one. Today’s idiom is the opposite. Thank you, Joey, for keeping me company during this A to Z challenge.

  5. Until recently, I never understood why you couldn’t have your cake and eat it too. Just sell half the cake, and eat the other half. But apparently, I was failing to grasp the greed issue in its fullness.

    • Again, I’m glad to read that even English native speakers and writers find the Cake idiom challenging. Thank you, Marilyn, for your daily visits during this month of April. Almost the end!

  6. Sisyphus47 says:

    Simplement délicieux! 🙂

  7. I think the French expression makes more sense. I love the way the French butter is wrapped like a gift – I bet it tastes wonderful.

    • It’s funny that you mentioned the way the butter looks, Claire, because it is one of the things that surprised me in the US when I arrived. Butter in France isn’t packaged with four sticks. It comes in much smaller sizes and yes it is usually very good. 😊
      Thank you for being so loyal to this series of mine.

  8. Well, I never knew the origin of that phrase and didn’t know it was specifically supposed to be about money. From that point of view, the French version is much clearer.

    • Thank you, Nick, for stopping by and adding your voice to the comments. Like you, I tend to find the French expression much clearer than the English equivalent. Looks look most people do too. Stop by for letter W!

  9. I’ve always thought that “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” means, more or less, “You can’t have it both ways.” If you eat the cake, you no longer have cake to eat. (I have been known to hoard the last chocolate because once I eat it I will have no chocolates at all.) Without Evelyne’s explanation, I would have read the French idiom the same way: “If you keep the butter, you won’t have the money you’d get from selling it.” But not selling it twice makes sense too.

    • As always, you’ve got interesting comments, Susanna. My husband interpreted the French idiom like you did interpret the English one. I read about the origins in different books and discovered the original meaning I gave in this post. In France this expression is now used in its metaphoric way about people who want to keep everything to themselves. What I realized as I prepared this series was how we’ve often wandered from the original meaning.
      See you tomorrow for a tough letter: W!

  10. I agree the English version doesn’t make much sense, though we understand its meaning – the French version spells it out much more clearly.

    • Although I prefer cake to butter, I also find the French expression easier to understand. Thank you so much, Andrea, for having been so loyal this month. A daily post is requiring a lot from readers. Promise: I won’t do it again soon!

  11. Yes I totally agree that the French version makes a lot more sense! These expressions are all so much fun to learn! I’m sending your site to everyone in my French class 🙂

    • You are too kind! It has been a fun month for me, as I usually favor fiction to non fiction. Returning to familar French expressions and providing their English equivalents has been a great personal exercise. So I’m glad that you found interesting material to share. See you tomorrow!

  12. Behind the Story says:

    Another related but more modern saying is when politicians assure us that it’s possible to have both guns and butter. In other words, don’t worry about going to war or expanding a war, we’ll still have plenty of money for domestic needs.

  13. I think the French version is more explicit in it not being a “good” thing to want both. The American one is more playful in that respect, and isn’t “hurting” anyone else. Lisa, co-host AtoZ 2015, @

  14. Good one Evelyne! Another expression here would be ‘He wants his bread buttered both sides’. He’ll have a long wait, ha 😉

%d bloggers like this: