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What is the meaning, origin and earliest use of the phrase "to take the biscuit"?

In the British comedy TV serial I am watching, the guy is upset because things are not happening as per his wishes. He is assembling a do-it-yourself baby cot for his daughter's baby, finishes assembling it, and goes out of the room. Then, when he returns to the room after some time, he sees that the baby cot is undone and all the parts separated, so he becomes very angry.

He is talking to his wife narrating all things during the day that went wrong, and when he comes to mentioning the baby cot, he says "...but this one takes the biscuit".

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    The American English version of this idiom is takes the cake. – Esoteric Screen Name Aug 5 '14 at 9:05
  • What was the name of the show? sounds like it would be something I'd like to watch. – Nzall Aug 5 '14 at 9:25
  • @NateKerkhofs, My Family, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Family – Vikram Aug 5 '14 at 9:59
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According to The Urban Dictionary, the phrase

Take the biscuit

is defined as-

take the biscuit

Chiefly a British idiom. When something "takes the biscuit" then it has become really bad, annoying or objectionable. Often used when something has worsened.

Couple of examples of the usage of this phrase-

Jeff has always been annoying, but his latest stunt takes the biscuit.

Petrol has always been expensive, but these new prices really do take the biscuit.

Therefore, in the show you saw, the phrase- "but this one takes the biscuit" is an idiom that the guy uses to say that among all the things that went wrong/bad that day, the baby cot(or rather- undoing of the baby cot) was the worst of them all.

Hope the meaning is clear to you now!

Also, here is a Google N-Gram which shows the usage of this phrase across 1800-2000. I would say, it started being used roughly around 1880.

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    Since British "biscuits" are "cookies" in America, the American equivalent might be "takes the cake." – Blazemonger Aug 5 '14 at 14:07
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If I'm not mistaken, the original context stems from the Afroamerican plantation slaves occasionally doing dance contests accompanied by music or rhythm where the awarded prize was in fact a cake (e.g. "cakewalk", early jazz music).

The one contestant who did the most extreme, most interesting or unconventional show on his way to the trophy "took the cake".

It had a positive connotation back then, but shifted to "extreme" and then "extremely bad" in the later decades/centuries, I presume.

  • good background information and shift of meaning from positive to negative – Vikram Aug 5 '14 at 13:35
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I'm British and when I (or anyone I know for that matter) uses it, we mean it to mean we're p****d off. I use the curse because it relates to Cockney rhyming slang. Its origin was most likely London, though I can't give a name nor can I give you a time, but I've always known it to mean that.

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A more American expression in this regard is "takes the cake."

Its meaning is "takes the prize," and not necessarily for something good.

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It's a naval expression from around the 1700's. If you were on a long voyage and having a hard time, all food gone except the ship-biscuit or hardtack, then the last misfortune was to run out of it, or loose it through spoilage. If the biscuit was taken, then things were desperate.

  • First off, it's "lose it", not "loose it" - single "o" for the verb, two "o"s for the adjective. Second, giving an example is not a good way to explain the meaning. Perhaps you could start with the brief direct explanation, or, if you are supplementing somebody else's answer, refer to it. – Victor Bazarov Aug 29 '15 at 22:09

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