Sell like hotcakes: Chrysti The Wordsmith


When I asked the vendor at a recent farmer’s market if he had any corn left, he explained, “Nope. All gone. Sold like hot cakes this morning.”

I smiled at the image of corn “selling like hot cakes,” and it made me think: how did the hot cake become a metaphor for any popular, fast-selling item?

The expression is solidly entrenched in American English. According to the Oxford English Dictinary, one of its earliest citations occurs in 1839, which means my great-great grandmother may have heard or used the expression selling like hot cakes.

Robert Hendrickson, in his Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins writes, "Hot cakes cooked in bear grease…were popular from earliest times in America. First made of cornmeal, [hot cakes] were best when served piping hot and were often sold at church benefits, fairs, and other functions. So popular were they that by the beginning of the 19th century 'to sell like hot cakes' was a familiar expression for anything that sold very quickly effortlessly, and in quantity."

And this is why it’s perfectly permissible for the vendor at my local farmer’s market to say that his corn on the cob sells like the hotcakes of an earlier day in America’s history.