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The phrase "sell like hot cakes" is a simile for how quick something is selling. That said, the meaning of "hot cake" is apparently a synonym of pancakes, or before pancakes, corn griddle cake and other varieties. Dictionary.com lists the date of origin dating back to 1839, where it first appeared.

That said, I'm wonder what's so "hot" about hot cakes? Was the time period in 1839 a period in which "hot cakes" were all the rage? Is there something about hot cakes that made them so popular that the phrase was coined?

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    I'd always assumed that 'hot cakes' simply meant fresh out of the oven, rather than being a particular type of cake. – Steve Bird Jun 26 '17 at 5:21
  • I remember being told at school that the phrase originated in the US. It was simply because pancakes were a very popular item sold at fairs in America in the early 19th century. – sempaiscuba Jun 26 '17 at 6:42
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    @SteveBird: I'd second that interpretation. The German equivalent is "weggehen wie warme Semmeln" ("getting sold like warm bread rolls"). That would fit with the "fresh out of the oven" interpretation, as there's no such thing as a "warm bread roll" dish. – DevSolar Jun 26 '17 at 9:15
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    Considering cold pancakes aren't all that nice - I'd imagine it's a reference to how quickly a fresh batch of hotcakes would be bought up – user13123 Jun 27 '17 at 0:54
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It appears nobody knows the origin.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "hot cake" goes back to the 17th century, but "sell like hot cakes" shows up in the early 1800s.

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

1839 C. F. Briggs Adventures Harry Franco I. xi. 74 ‘You had better buy 'em, Colonel,’ said Mr. Lummucks, ‘they will sell like hot cakes.’

1879 Congress. Rec. 15 May 1368/1 Four per cent bonds..go off like hot cakes.

1908 Daily Chron. 4 Aug. 3/4 Ice creams at 3d. a time went ‘like hot cakes’.

Mental Floss says...

While the word “hotcake” dates back to the late 17th century and ”pancake” first appears in England around 1400, this phrase, with the figurative meaning “to be in great demand,” didn’t appear until around 1840 and there’s no evidence of a great hotcake demand that might have led to its creation. Instead, etymologists are left to assume that since hotcakes have always been popular at events like county fairs and church socials, where the crowd greatly outnumbers the culinary staff and the cakes often sell as fast as they can be made, the term was coined and spread through popular usage.

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It's a figure of speech, not a reference to some historical type of cake.

The image is that the demand for something (cakes in this example) is so high that producers (bakers) will be able to sell them immediately after the production is finished (cakes come out of the oven, and are still hot) - unlike the usual way where products will be on display for a bit (and cool down).

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