Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Episode 169: Sell Like Hotcakes Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 169: Sell Like Hotcakes

Record Date: October 10, 2022

Air Date: October 12, 2022



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook

Have you ever heard someone say “those are selling like hotcakes”? I recently heard someone say this and it made me wonder, are hotcakes just pancakes or are they different? And why do hotcakes sell so quickly? And when did we start making hotcakes? I had so many questions! Several research rabbit holes later, I have answers. 


Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about our phrase


like hot cakes, as the type of something very desirable or in great demand; originally and frequently in to sell (also go, go off) like hot cakes.

End Quote

I’ll note up front the food hot cakes, almost everywhere I have seen it written, is two words. Pancake. One word. Hot cake. Two words. No matter how many times my grammar checkers try to tell me that hot cake is now one word.  

While I am certain our phrase pre-dates the written evidence we have for it, the first time we see it in print is in 1839. And I actually have two works found in 1839 for our phrase, one using sell like hot cakes and the other using go like hot cakes. 

I’ll use this one first as it is the first attestation the Oxford English Dictionary uses as well, which is Charles Frederick Briggs’ work The Adventures of Harry Franco. I couldn’t find an original copy of the book, but I did find an excerpt from The Knickerbocker magazine, also published in 1839, in a literary review of the work. 


Before I could make any reply, or even guess at the meaning of Mr. Davis’s remarks, he was called away, and Mr. Lummucks stepped up and supplied his place.

You had better buy ‘em, Colonel, said Mr. Lummucks; they will sell like hot cakes.

End Quote

The second example I found is way more fun. This one was from, what we might call today, a spam email. Yes, spam existed before email existed. It was sent to a Mr. George W. Wilton of Waterbury, CT. In the mail he received was counterfeit money and a letter that numerous newspapers published verbatim. 


End Quote

The Morning Herald out of New York (the first I found to publish about this situation) in the July 16, 1839 edition, had this to opine about the letter.


End Quote

Here is the NY Express’ take on this, as published in the Aug 2, 1830 edition of the Vermont Phoenix


End Quote

Either way, the first two attestations we have of something going “like hot cakes” are both from 1839. But I have more questions. Firstly, what are hot cakes?

The Oxford English Dictionary says a hot cake is:


Any of various types of cake which are baked on a griddle or fried; spec. a griddle cake, a pancake made with a raising agent.

End Quote

The OED, helpfully, also takes on my second question. When did we start making hot cakes? 

They note the term hot cakes has been around since at least 1683. It was used in a letter by William Penn, Founder of Pennsylvania, titled A letter from William Penn proprietary and governour of Pennsylvania…to the Committee of the Free society of traders of that province, residing in London. Part of that letter described how some of the indigenous people celebrated the harvest. I’ll read from an excerpt of that letter, used in the 1805 work The History of North and South America by Richard Snowden, Esq. 



End Quote

We know from Penn’s letter that the indigenous peoples of America were making hot cakes in the 1600s and probably long before that. But hot cakes continued to be an American custom long after European settlers spread from coast to coast, as mentioned in the January 1861 edition of:

I found an article from someone exploring hotels in America, noting:


End Quote

With the what and the when of hot cakes out of the way, let’s jump back to the journey of our phrase, something selling or going like hot cakes, which we first found in 1839. 

Here’s an example from 1841 that we found published in a British newspaper, but it was part of a letter to the Editor from a correspondent in New Haven, CT. This is from the September 12, 1841 edition of The British Queen and Statesmen out of London, England. (page 26) 

Here’s another just a few years later that has a slightly different take on the phrase. This is out of:

And yet another version a few years after that one:

Up next we have one from 1887 that is taking a familiar version:

Here’s one from 1910 with our titular version

And one more, this one from the comics pages in Glamor Girls by Don Flowers, which is a series of single panel comics. I’ll read the first, even though it doesn’t include our phrase, because it made me laugh. 

There are plenty more uses of selling like hot cakes in modern times. But before we get to those, here’s a quick note of thanks to our sponsors. 

A Quick Thank You


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Modern Uses

2014 News Story

A November 20, 2014 article in the British online newspaper, Independent, by Christopher Hooton teases the title Hot cakes aren't selling like hot cakes 


Despite being an enduring idiom for healthy consumer demand, it seems hot cakes aren't the must-have dessert they once were.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, a Wikipedia redirect and <an> archived New York Times recipe, a hot cake is essentially just a pancake.

The phrase originated in the 1800s when simple cornmeal versions were sold at church bake sales and snapped up by the congregation before they went cold.

But in a modern market saturated by brownies, cronuts and other baked goods, the humble pancake is on the wane.

Bloomberg discovered that sales of pancake mix in the US have declined 1.5 percent in the last five years, and in the UK they remain exiled to Shrove Tuesday and underrepresented at street food events.

End Quote

The author notes that perhaps "selling like ramen" or "selling like quinoa" would be a more accurate idiom. 

I need to Bunny Trail a bit here, because I had never heard of Shrove Tuesday before. Apparently, it is another name for what we call in the United States, Fat Tuesday, or in French, Mardi Gras. It’s the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. And Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent when Christians worldwide focus on prayer, penance, and fasting in to prepare for the Easter season. Why pancakes, or hotcakes? I’ll turn to a from February 25, 2020 by Francisco Guzman and Pete Burn titled Why people eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday


It started when Pope St. Gregory prohibited Christians from eating all forms of meat and animal products during Lent around A.D. 600.

He told St. Augustine of Canterbury, a founder of the Christian church in southern England, to enforce those same fasting rules in England.

So Christians made pancakes to use up their supply of eggs, milk and butter in preparation for Lent. 

When the tradition spread throughout Europe, people in France followed the trend. They made waffles, crepes and a dessert many know as king cake to utilize their dairy products. They called it Mardi Gras.

And the English named it Pancake Day. 

End Quote 

2021 Song

Sell Like Hot Cakes is a song off the 2021 album Hammerfire by Projection of Sealing. It’s an electronic song with no lyrics. It’s got an 8 bit vibe. If that’s your thing, you should check out the album. 

2021 Book

Here’s an independently published book by Surinder Kansala called Sell Like Hot Cakes: A Guide to Learn How to Sell Your Products and Services to Millions. Google Books says it was originally published in February 2021, though the cover looks like a cheesy 1980s “how to” guide. Perhaps that was what they were going for.

2022 Song

Next up is a song Go Like Hot Cakes, off the March 2022 album Nutrient 881 by The Bookshelves Ailments. It’s a short piece, also with no words. It features a breathy wind instrument sound. Almost like the intro to an Enya song.

Okay, since we have a couple of ways our phrase was used in the early days, let’s check in with everyone’s favorite angry social media to see how it’s being used. To the Twitter!

Here’s one from October 4, 2022 by Rhea Liang. This is in response to a conversation about the availability of scrub sizes in a hospital - scrubs being a common term for the sanitary clothing worn by medical professionals. 

Here’s another example of “go like hotcakes”, this one from Jennifer Dary in response to a management seminar offering:

But by and large, the examples I found on Twitter were a version of sell or selling like hot cakes, like this one from Taylor Gaspar Estes in response to Bijan Mustardon pitching a mustard bottle cap design. 

Wrap Up

So despite there being quite the variety of ways one could go through hot cakes back in the day, now it seems to be mostly selling. Which as an American, feels both expected and disappointing. But the most disappointing thing of all… almost every example I could find of it on Twitter had hotcakes spelled as one word. And since language changes with its users, I will have to refine my earlier statement. Pancake. One Word. Hotcakes. Also one word. 


That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website


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Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember, 


Words belong to their users. 

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