SENTENCE USAGE: "What a mess them boys made in the house while we wuz gone. That really takes the cake!
What does cake have to do with an untidy house?
Take the cake is used to express incredulity or to be the most outrageous or disappointing.
It is widely supposed that this phrase originated with cakewalk-strutting competitions that were commonplace in the black community of the southern United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In those, couples would be judged on their style in the cakewalk. The winners were said to have "taken the cake," which was often the prize. This is recorded in U.S. newspapers from around 1870 onward; for example, The Indiana Progress, January 1874, has:
"The cakewalk, in which ten couples 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 phrase is much earlier than that, though. As early as 5th century BC, the Greeks used take the cake as symbolic of a prize for a victory. In 420 BC the Greek Aristophanes wrote "The Knights" that was a criticism of the powerful Athenian politician Cleon:
"If you surpass him in impudence, the cake is ours."
Clearly, that phrase would have entered into English in translation. Although it may have been long used in Greece, there’s no evidence of any take up of it in English prior to the 19th century U.S. usage.
In the United States, the phrase is sometimes given as "take the cakes," although the singular is used elsewhere in the English-speaking world. That version is the earliest citation in print in English. William Trotter Porter’s 1847 work, "A Quarter Race in Kentucky," has:
"They got up a horse and fifty dollars in money a side, ... each one to start and ride his own horse, ... the winning horse take the cakes."