Etymology of cutlerly terms?!
January 3, 2008 1:49 AM   Subscribe

Why are the words for cutlerly (fork, knife, spoon) so different in the Romance languages?

I just noticed that the words for fork, knife, and spoon are totally different in Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian (and presumably in French, Galician, etc). Does anyone know the etymology of these words or have an explanation of why this is? One would think that as these are not tools independently invented in each Romance-speaking society, the words should be similar... no?

For Portuguese, perhaps someone has the Aurelio dictionary - this gives etymology of words so maybe that'd be enlightening.


colher cuchara cucchiaio spoon
garfo tenedor forchetta fork
faca cuchillo cotello knife

Anyway, any related thoughts would be interesting, e.g. other Romance languages, and/or Germanic/Asian ones etc. Thanks!
posted by mateuslee to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
German French English
Loffel cuilliere spoon
Gabel fourchette fork
Messer couteau knife
posted by smcniven at 2:13 AM on January 3, 2008

Well, as far as "fork" goes in Spanish, "tenedor" derives from tener -to have/hold. So it's literally a "holder".
posted by cmgonzalez at 3:07 AM on January 3, 2008

Oh, this should help you. Use it to go from language to language.
posted by cmgonzalez at 3:09 AM on January 3, 2008

I have had similar passing thoughts on why the word for "cat" is pretty much the same in all Romance languages, but the word for "dog" is so different:
English: cat, dog
Spanish: gato, perro
Portuguese: gato, cachorro
Italian: gatto, cane
posted by jozxyqk at 3:22 AM on January 3, 2008

IANLH: It's probably worth noting that forks are relatively recent inventions and knives are really old. Therefore I'd expect forks to have slightly more similar terms.

Of course, a little more poking around (before 7 am, which means this might be nonsense) gives some ideas - in English, 'fork' comes from the physical description of the shape, ie, to branch out, and that's not necessarily going to be similar among languages either. Additionally, take into account that it looks like some terms come from other nouns (the italian from the latin) whereas some come from verbs (english knife from a german verb.)

Finally, I don't see a huge difference in the spoons, except in English and German, which are the odd fish out anyway. The English comes from the Scandinavian, just to be special.
posted by cobaltnine at 3:50 AM on January 3, 2008

As cobaltnine said, one reason that there is a different word for fork in each language is that it's a relatively new technology, and widespread use didn't come about until fairly recently.

According to the Wikipedia article, forks became widely used in Italy between the 1300s and 1500s. Catherine de' Medici of Italy introduced the fork to the French aristocracy around 1550. Forks didn't become commonplace in Great Britain until the 1700s.

So it would make sense, for the fork at least, that a new technology that spread across Europe from the 14th to 18th centuries would be given different names in each language.
posted by burnmp3s at 4:02 AM on January 3, 2008

My understanding is that forks at place settings did not become widely used in Europe until Renaissance times (at which point French, Spanish, Italian, etc. had already branched apart from one another and presumably cross-pollinated each others' vocabularies less). I'll see if I can dig up a reference on that fact.

On preview: dammit burnmp3s!
posted by letourneau at 4:09 AM on January 3, 2008

well, for one thing, english is not a romance language. it's a germanic language with a ton of french influence due to the norman conquest. the normans were generally higher class, so you'll find latinate words for "higher" concepts, but stuff that deals with the nit and grit of daily life tend to be anglo-saxon. like kitchenware. (also, the word for raw meat or the animal it comes from tends to be anglo-saxon, but the cooked food tends to be norman: like cow, which becomes beef (from the french boeuf).

ergo: spoon and knife come directly from the pre-norman old english. (although it is a germanic language, its closest cousins to old english are the scandinavian tongues. icelandic is its nearest modern cousin.) "fork" seems to come directly from the italian, probably because it arrived through fairly established trade routes. spoons and knives were almost certainly independent inventions--"spoon" comes from the old english word for "wood chip."

i can't comment on the differences between the other romance languages, although do remember that until relatively recently, there was no standardized "french" or "italian"--there were simply lots of dialects, often mutually comprehensible but not totally. as nations coalesced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it became practical to establish a single state language. in italy, it was the tuscan dialect. in spain, it was the castilian dialect. if you think about how ideas are transmitted, it's like a game of "telephone." one person tells another, who tells another in a different accent, or makes something up that conforms to the local language, who might remember what it does but not the exact name, so they make up something that seems to make sense and tells the next person. hence, a fork becomes a "holder" in spanish. not until it gets fixed in a language does a standardized name emerge, and then it doesn't become official until centuries later. so.

i'll stop geeking out now. :)
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:06 AM on January 3, 2008 [6 favorites]

icelandic is its nearest modern cousin.

Actually, Frisian is generally considered the nearest modern cousin of English.

But you're correct that English is Germanic. There are a number of ways of demonstrating that, but the easiest one is this: Romance languages have two genders. Germanic languages have three.

It is impossible to literally translate the word "it" into French or Spanish. They have words equivalent to "he" and "she" but Romance languages have no neuter gender.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:50 AM on January 3, 2008

Well, I don't own an Aurelio but the PT dictionary I own says:

faca (knife) obscure origin
garfo (fork) from the arab garf, meaning "fistful"?
colher (spoon) from the latin cochleáre-, through fr. cuillère

Also, jozxyqk, dog in European Portuguese is "Cão", coming from the latin "cane". "Cachorro" is used in Brazil for dog but in Portugal means puppy. My dictionary says "Cachorro" is of obscure origin...

Interestingly enouh "garfio" in spanish is a metal hook and "garfada" is a sudden movement made by a person or animal to grab something using claws or nails.

Faca seems to me more obscure and some Portuguese linguists believe it came from pre-roman times. "Faca" also means knife in spanish, by the way, but not a table knife, more like a sword...I think.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 7:07 AM on January 3, 2008

I just finished reading Bill Buford's Heat; in it he claims that the fork was a later Italian invention, for the purpose of eating pasta. So if spoons and knives were commonly used during the Romance diaspora (i.e. during the Roman empire), you would expect the name to be similar across all Romance languages. Since forks came later, the name could be expected to differ.

Since cats and dogs were domesticated at the time of the Indo-European diaspora, you would expect the name to be similar across all Indo-European languages. You see this for cat:
GER: katze ENG: cat FR: chat SP: gato ITAL: gatto INDO-EUR: ut-chat

For dog, you use the k -> h rule in going from Indo-European to Teutonic languages:
GER: hund ENG: hound FR: chien SP: perro ITAL: cane INDO-EUR: ku

In the case of English, hound was the generic term for all dogs up unitl Middle English, when the term swapped with "dogge", which was a specific breed of hound (in the modern sense, a hunting dog).

In Spanish, perro is from Basque.
posted by noble_rot at 7:34 AM on January 3, 2008

I've told that Romanian is supposed to be the closest modern language to Latin. The Romanian for these items is:

Fork - furculiţă
Knife - Cuţit
Spoon - Lingură
posted by alicegoldie at 8:33 AM on January 3, 2008

Romanian is also interesting for cutlery terms in that there are two words for (at least) fork and spoon. I don't speak it well so, feel free to correct me but you have lingură for spoon but also linguriţă meaning teaspoon (little spoon, iţă being a diminutive, pronounced "-eetza" sort of) whereas furculiţă means like table fork but when you say furcă on its own it means "fork" like pitchfork or hay bale tosser, that sort of thing.
posted by jessamyn at 9:18 AM on January 3, 2008

But you're correct that English is Germanic. There are a number of ways of demonstrating that, but the easiest one is this: Romance languages have two genders. Germanic languages have three.

Wow, this is interesting. I had always thought Romance languages were Latin derivatives. Latin certainly has three genders. What is the common ancestor of Romance languages..or is there none?
posted by spicynuts at 10:18 AM on January 3, 2008

thinkingwoman: spoons and knives were almost certainly independent inventions--"spoon" comes from the old english word for "wood chip."

In Icelandic it's fork - gaffall, knife - hnífur and spoon - skeið. Wood chip in Icelandic is spónn. Icelandic and Old Norse are very similar.

Vulgar Latin is the common ancestor of Romance languages, spicynuts.
posted by Kattullus at 11:46 AM on January 3, 2008

It is impossible to literally translate the word "it" into French

«Ça» has precisely this meaning.
posted by Wolof at 9:38 PM on January 3, 2008

Wolof, I stand corrected. It seems that when the Romance languages dropped the neuter gender from classical Latin, they retained the third pronoun as a vestige.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:25 PM on January 3, 2008

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