Just what is already baked into that cake?

Amid all the panettone and other holiday treats, the Monitor's language columnist is surprised to hear Wall Streeters and techies drawing on oven metaphors.

Waiting for our number to be called for brunch at the deli a couple of Sundays ago, we couldn't help noticing the elaborate baskets of holiday baked goods on display. They were obviously meant to entice us into wrapping up our Christmas shopping right there – boom! – before we'd even had a chance to order our Eggs Benedict.

But it struck me that I'd been hearing of baked goods of a more dubious kind for several weeks.

The first instance of this came during a panel discussion of the economic crisis. One speaker decried the way countless mortgage loans were structured in a way that, she argued, meant they were doomed to fail. "Wall Street baked it in," was the way she put it.

In a more recent example, a USA Today article that ran under the headline "Deflation: Bargains everywhere, and that could be a problem," quoted a mutual fund portfolio manager on what he saw as the inevitability, at least in the short run, of an economic contraction leading to lower consumer prices. "Part of it is already baked in the cake, given the fall in commodity prices," the manager said.

And just as sportswriters are continually looking for new ways to say "win" and "lose," so financial analysts are always looking for ways to express how markets anticipate, or discount, good or bad news. So the oven metaphor is helpful to them, too. Thus a Deutsche Bank strategist explained the stock market's Thanksgiving rally, despite the negative statistics on consumer confidence, home sales, and durable goods: "I think most of these bad numbers are baked in."

In the tech world, "baked in" seems to be a hip way to say "built in." Nextgov.com quoted an official of the US Justice Department saying, with reference to information technology security, "We need a successful way of baking privacy into our systems."

But for those of us who delight in a perfect match between the literal and the metaphorical, this bit from a newspaper blog post about a Canadian breadmaking company is hard to beat: "Baked-in value at George Weston: The share price should soon be rising along with the dough."

Speaking of matches: My surfing around in the Online Etymology Dictionary just now for background on "bake" turned up this interesting little tidbit.

I'm not sure what to do with it, so I'll insert it here and leave you to ponder, dear reader: "Batch is to bake as watch is to wake and match ('one of a pair') is to make."

Baking, as a process, suggests profound chemical transformation, ineradicability – and hence inevitability, especially as in the quote from the economic panel mentioned earlier. Some of the oldest examples of writing are clay tablets whose inscriptions were baked into them.

In a financial context, baking suggests cooking, as in "cooking the books." Then there's the folklore about knives, files, etc., being baked into cakes brought to prisoners.

But "baking in" has an entirely different set of associations in cultures with traditions of special cakes with a coin (nowadays wrapped in foil) baked in. Greeks, for instance, celebrate New Year's with St. Basil's cake, flavored with orange and lemon and dusted with flaked almonds. The coin is believed to bring good luck to the one who gets the slice containing it. My source for this intelligence is the Mathematical Association of America, whose website reports on two different analyses of the probabilities of getting the slice with the coin.

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