Depending on the tone of voice, this phrase can mean either of:
— To be the most outrageous or disappointing.
— To win the prize; be outstanding.
Whether it’s good or bad, it means to carry off the honors.
Originally, to take the cake meant to win a prize or a competition — people as far back as the ancient Greeks used the word “cake” to mean a symbolic prize. Over time, it grew to have a more negative, sarcastic meaning in English: “I can’t believe the mess in this kitchen. It just takes the cake.”
If you say that something someone has said, or done, takes the cake, you mean that it was very bad, and even worse than things they have said or done before. “She’s been opening my mail — that really takes the cake!”
Many believe that this phrase originated with cake-walk strutting competitions, which were commonplace in the black community of the southern USA in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In those, couples would be judged on their style in the ‘cake-walk.’ The winners were said to have ‘taken the cake,’ which was often the prize. This is recorded in US newspapers from around the 1870 onwards.
The phrase is much earlier than that, as noted above. As early as the 5th century BC, the Greeks used ‘take the cake’ as symbolic of a prize for a victory. In 420 BC, Aristophanes wrote ‘The Knights,’ which was a criticism of the powerful Athenian politician Cleon:
“If you surpass him in impudence the cake is ours.”
That phrase would have been translated into English and, though it may have long been used in Greece, there’s no evidence of any use in English prior to the 19th century US usage.
In the US 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.”
The mess on my desk might “take the cake” but I’d rather have chocolate ice cream, thank you very much.