Although both terms can be used for savoury preparations (meat cakes or vegetable gateaux) their main use is for sweet baked goods.
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In France, the word 'gateau' designates various patisserie items based on puff pastry, shortcrust pastry (basic pie dough), sweet pastry, pate saglee, choux pastry, Genoese and whisked sponges and meringue...
The word 'gateau' is derived from the Old French wastel, meaning 'food'.
This is due to primarily to advances in technology (more reliable ovens, manufacture/availability of food molds) and ingredient availability (refined sugar). When removed the icing cooled quickly to form a hard, glossy [ice-like] covering.