The humble spatula's linguistic origins

It's richer than you might imagine

The humble spatula has a rich linguistic history.
(Image credit: Thinkstock)

In his 1989 movie UHF, Weird Al Yankovic has a fake advertisement for a spatula warehouse calling itself Spatula City, which has "thousands to choose from, in every shape, size, and color!" Really, it's just an excuse to say "spatula" again and again, because it's such a fun word. But did you know that spatula is a member of a family of at least six words that are related etymologically?

1. Spathe (rhymes with bathe)

The Greek word spathe (pronounced spa-thay) or spatha, which meant "a broad blade," was borrowed into Latin as spatha to refer to a variety of long sword. English botanists borrowed the word directly from Latin in the 1700s, sometimes using the original Latin spelling, sometimes omitting the final vowel entirely in spath, and sometimes spelling it the way that is now considered standard. So why did botanists need a word for a sword? Well, they didn't. But you know how some flowers have a big, penis-like thing sticking up out of the middle? You've seen them if you've seen pictures of Anthurium, or Titan arum, that huge tropical flower that smells like rotting meat on the (thankfully rare) occasions when it blooms. Sword, penis — you see the connection, right? Wrong! The word for that thing is not spathe; it's spadix (and even that word is not related to spatha, though it looks like it should be). The spathe is the leaf-like structure that surrounds the spadix.

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2. Spade

This word for a broad-bladed digging instrument, in addition to being what plain-talking people use to refer to spades, looks like a clear derivation from that Greek spath. It isn't. It's been in English since the earliest days of Old English, as spadu. Similar words in German and Scandinavian languages show that the word has been around since even before English existed. Most likely, it and spath, share a common Proto-Indo-European root.

3. Spade

Wait, didn't we just do spade? Yes, we did, but this time we're talking about the kind of spades for which there exist aces, jacks, queens, and kings. This one really does come from that Latin root, but via Italian in the late 1500s. Latin spatha became Italian spada, whose plural was spade ("spa-day").

4. Spay

Yes, as in "Remember to spay or neuter your dogs and cats." During its journey into Old French, spatha gained an epenthetic e- before the sp- cluster, and the th between the vowels weakened, first to a d, and then to nothing at all. The result was the Old French noun espee, from which derived the verb espeer, "to cut with a sword." Making the jump into Middle English in the 1500s, the epenthetic e- was taken back off to give us spay.

5. Epée

If you were thinking that a French word espee meaning "sword" sounded a lot like this other French word meaning "one of the swords used in fencing," you're right. Somewhat later in French, s before another consonant would often disappear, leaving behind the vowel that came before it, sometimes marked with an acute or circumflex accent. Thus, Latin fenestra "window" and French fenêtre; Latin scribere "write" and French écrire; Latin spatha and French épée. This borrowing came some three centuries after spay, in the late 1800s.

6. Epaulet

If you though the multiple sound changes that got us from spatha to épée were crazy, there's more to come. While Latin spatha was undergoing its changes in Gallo-Roman, so was its diminutive form… spatula! This word for "little sword" wasn't pronounced the way we do it: "spatch-luh". It was more like "spot-a-la." The first things that happened were an e- got added to the front, and the t got weakened to a d, the same as happened with espada on the way to spay. That would have been espadula. Then that weak, unstressed vowel between the d and the l dropped out, the same as it does in present-day English if you've ever pronounced Columbus as Clumbus, or vegetable as vetch-table. That resulted in espadla. Butted up against the l, the d just turned into an l itself: espalla. Then there was the loss of the s that you heard about for épée, and a couple of vowel adjustments, to end up with Modern French épaule "shoulder," and the shoulder decoration epaulette, borrowed into English as epaulet in the late 1700s. Just one question: What do swords, even little ones, have to do with shoulders? Maybe it's something about shoulder blades, I don't know.

7. Spatula

We got a preview of spatula in the last entry. As you can see from the spelling, it's another direct borrowing from Latin, with no side trips through French or Italian. In fact, the diminutive spatula was borrowed into English in the 1520s, around the same time as the verb spay, but about half a century before the non-diminutive form spatha was. The Oxford English Dictionary says a spatula is "a simple implement of wood, ivory, or metal, having a flat elongated form with various modifications of shape and size, used for a variety of purposes," and boy, are they right! You've got your rubber-bladed variety, like the ones I use to scrape the last of the peanut butter out of a jar. There's the long, flat, metal kind for leveling off flour or sugar in a measuring cup. And of course, there's the "turner" variety, suitable for flipping burgers and fried eggs. This, in fact, is the only kind of spatula seen in the Spatula City commercial, notwithstanding its claim of selling spatulas of all shapes and sizes.

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