Monthly Archives: January 2012


What would you call the portion of your house in which you might find one of these?

Yes, it’s a swing, the site of lazy Sunday afternoon reading, of lovers’ first kisses in 1950s films, and (if you’re me, my sister or mother), the site of a three person pile-up on the floor as one side of the thing falls down out of the ceiling where it had been (apparently only) temporarily attached.  And in what space did this near-disaster occur?

The porch.

And why might three reasonable human beings be lolling around on a piece of wood suspended (precariously) from the ceiling of a room that is not quite in (but not quite out) of the house?

Because that’s what you do on the porch.

You swing.

Like a lot of things architecture-related, the physical history of the American porch begins in Greece, with the stoa.  Stoa is the name given to a colonnade surrounding a temple or lecture hall.

A Greek stoa

Following a more-or-less stoic Medieval period, the idea of columned entryways for public buildings is revived in Renaissance Italy with the loggia (ultimately from the Latin lobia “covered walk”, which is also the ultimate origin of the word lobby).

Palladio's Loggia Bernarda

The loggia is adopted into the architecture of aristocratic homes, which finally brings the ‘porch’ home.

Skipping ahead a few hundred years in time, we come to the American porch, which develops along two paths. The practical path has the porch starting as a lean-to type structure, built to protect the front entryway of the home.  This type of porch was often formed by the continuation of the roofline in order to shield the front door.

Lean-to style porch

The other path I’m calling the ‘aesthetic’ path, not because practical porches weren’t beautiful (see above), but because this type of columned porch is purposefully neoclassical in its design. This type of porch becomes popular during the Classically-inspired Federal Period (just after the Revolutionary War) with the same, colonnaded type of façade we saw on Greek temples being applied, not only to government buildings, but to residential structures as well.

Drayton Hall in Charleston, SC

The two paths meet to form the modern porch, which is both practical and design-centered, so that it can function as a shelter over the front door and as a potential gathering place.

The word porch is itself a testament to its neoclassical inspiration. Borrowed from French, ultimately from the Latin porticus, porch originally refers to a covered entryway, but by the early 1900s, the term refers to any platform that lies before a door.

From the Latin porticus, American English gets portico as well (this time borrowed from Italian).  Portico flaunts its classical Greek roots, as its presence in English begins as a formal architectural term used to refer to “columns at regular intervals supporting a roof” or “a covered colonnade in this style”.

Americans in the mid-1800s saw their front porches as a gateway between public and private.  The porch came alive at nightfall.  The porch was a place to sit and relax and visit with family and neighbors.  Porches created community and they stood as symbols of American neighborliness up until the end of World War II.

What chased away the front porch?

It could have been the traffic. More cars passing through the neighborhood meant more noise.  It could have been the lure of air conditioning or the beckoning of the family television.  For whatever reason, after WW II, the American porch recedes.  Or, in the least, the porch retreats to the side or back of the house.

Some say the porch is being resurrected, as a desirable architectural feature and as an American symbol of community and family.

I think that, in some cases, you could argue that the porch never left.  Take the city stoop as an example.  A gift to American architecture from the Dutch, the stoep (“step”) has long served as an entryway and a gathering place in front of urban row houses.

A traditional Dutch stoep

The Dutch concept applied to a city stoop (this one from 1913).

With the types of porches and the variety of names we have for them, we see another example of the wide range of influences that have combines to create American architecture and American English.

Let’s start with the veranda, which is “an open portico or light roofed gallery” along the front of a building, frequently enclosed by lattice-work to offer protection from sun or rain.  This term, brought back from India by British colonials, is found in several Indian languages (such as Hindi varanda and Bengali baranda), but according to the OED, the Indian languages probably borrowed the term from Portuguese or Spanish (from varanda “railing, baulustrade, balcony”) as a result of the spice trade that had been in place since ancient times.

In the US, veranda is most likely heard in the south, including places under the sway of New Orleans (the epicenter of Spanish and French influence in southern America).

A New Orleans veranda

In Australian and New Zealand Englishes, a veranda is a “roof-like structure built along the side of a building, especially one built over the pavement outside business premises”. Which means that, in these varieties of English, a veranda is what Americans would call an awning.

We also have the ramada.

Originally used for a structure or shelter made of branches, ramada is from Spanish (derived from rama “branch”).  In American English, we hear ramada in the southwest, as a designation for an “open structure designed to provide shade, and typically roofed with brush or branches”. A ramada is an open porch, kind of like a pergola. Or an arbor.

A ramada/pergola/arbor. Basically a garden porch.

Piazza, the Italian name for a market-place or square, is one also applied to uncovered porches throughout Virginia and the Carolinas.  According to the OED, the move from ‘market-place’ to ‘porch’ occurs because of the Italian custom of “constructing colonnades round open squares”, something that is later echoed in the construction of English (and American) balcony-style porches.

As time goes on, the colonnade is substituted by a balustrade, which is basically a much shorter structure, with stubby little columns.  Here is a traditional Italian piazza, outlined by a balustrade.

Grand Hotel piazza in Livorno, Italy

Here is a modern interpretation of the same idea, now in a more porch-like form.

A curved glass balustrade

As a porch-term, piazza can be heard in the eastern US states, from New England on down the eastern seaboard, in these cases applied to non-balustraded areas.

Another word for ‘porch’ found among the Linguistic Atlas data was terrace, which originally refers to “a mound of earth or rubbish” (borrowed into English from the French, but ultimately from the Italian terrazza “filthy earth”) and eventually becomes the term for “a raised level place for walking” that has sloping sides.  Terrace also comes to be applied to “a gallery, open on one or both sides, a colonnade, a portico, a balcony on the outside of a building” and even “the flat roof of a house”.

The OED says that these senses of terrace are obsolete, or at least that they were obsolete, as the use of terrace for a porch-like structure is “now revived”.

Gallery is another term that has porch-like uses.  Several people (in South Carolina especially) gave gallery as an answer when the Atlas interviewers asked about what they called an entryway to a house.  The OED lists, as one definition of gallery, “a covered space for walking in” and a narrow “balcony, constructed on the outside of a building”.  This is how gallery comes to be applied (by different people) to both a ‘porch’ and an ‘attic‘.

Patio comes from Spanish for “courtyard” which comes from the Old Occitan pati “uncultivated land” and originally referred to the roofless inner courtyard for a Spanish or Mexican house, later extended to a “paved [in the sense that it has bricks or stone laid down] roofless area adjoining a house”.

Patio in coastal Spain. Looks just like a Middle Eastern ruwaq. Just so you know.

In addition to the French terrace, Italian loggia and piazza, Latin portico, porch, and gallery, Spanish patio and ramada, Spanish via Indian veranda, and Dutch stoop, English also houses the Hawaiian lanai, the South Asian pial, and the Javanese pendopo.

A pendopo. It can be attached to the house or free-standing (like a ramada).

A lot of cultures have a place that’s kinda inside ~ kinda outside and, apparently, English has borrowed a word for “porch” from each of them.  Perhaps this is another way that the porch is a symbol of our neighborliness.


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A glazed Krispy Kreme doughnut has 200 calories. This post has 0 calories.

Before there were doughnuts, there were dough-cakes, an British term for a fried cake of dough, first written about in 1794. Beware, though, that dough-cake is also an insult, as in the following quote from Mary Palmer’s 1839 work, A Dialogue in the Devonshire Dialect, “How unvitty and cat-handed you go about it, you dough-cake.”

Yes, without being unvitty or cat-handed about it at all, today’s topic is doughnuts.

About the same time that we first see dough-cake in print, we also see nutcake (the food – the insult comes much later), which was a fried cake containing ground or chopped nuts.  Put dough-cake and nutcake together and you get the (in no way insulting) term doughnut.

The word doughnuts appears in print for the first time in an 1809 English work, as an entry in a list of of American recipes, and was described as “balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks.”

Olykoek (there are various spellings) is the name for “a ball of sweet dough that has been fried in lard” brought to America in the 17th c by Dutch settlers (along with cookies, from koekje “little cake”, and various kinds of pie).  In fact, we see the term oliekoek (Dutch for “oil cake”) being used as a general term for ‘doughnuts’ in the Hudson River Valley of New York, an area mightily influenced by the Dutch.

By the way, American English is not the only beneficiary of Dutch doughnut descriptors.  South African English contains poffertje, from Dutch (and Afrikaans) “little puffs”, the name for a small sweet “pancake or fritter, typically fried and dusted with sugar”.

The crisp and crumbling cruller

Washington Irving, in his Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) mentions a series of sweet, fried treats, “the doughy dough-nut, the tenderer oly koek, and the crisp and crumbling cruller”.

Which brings us to . . . the cruller.  Also known as the crull, crawler, croller, and coiller.  All of these names descended from the Dutch word krulle, meaning “curled cake”.  The distinguishing feature of the cruller is its twisted appearance, though cruller is used as a more general doughnut term (once again) in Dutch settler-influenced areas.

Fossnock is a Pennsylvania Deutsch term for a fried cake specially made on Shrove Tuesday, the day preceding Lent (fossnock coming from German fastnacht, “fast night”), which makes it food for an Amish Mardi Gras.  Fossnock, too, becomes generalized to everyday doughnuts, heard throughout Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland.

In the midwest, at the time of the DARE interviews, speakers in the north and Great Lakes areas were likely to call a doughnut what it is, a fried cake (or fry cake).  (Perhaps just as literally, you may also hear the term belly sinker from speakers in these northern states.)

We also see marvelles in South Carolina, sinkers out west (perhaps a more optomistic form of belly sinkers), love knots and matrimonies (these are both ‘crullers’, with strips of dough braided together) in the northeast, and zeppoles coming into American English more recently (in the 1970s, along with other Italian food items such as calzones and bracciola).

I will leave you with a couple of fun, scattered doughnut names from the Linguistic Atlas of the Middle and South Atlantic States: rollie bollies (the only even vaguely related definition that I’ve found is of rolle bolle, a lawn game played with discs instead of balls, which I can imagine as a plausible transference to a disc-shaped doughnut), jumbies, rusks, cubbies, and (my favorite) tangled britches (which has to be a cruller, doesn’t it?).  If anyone has heard of these, please leave a comment and let me know!

I'm sure sprinkles have a history too.

Quite a few doughnut terms seem to walk the line between “what we think of as a doughnut” and “what we think of as a pancake”, such as fried bread (or fry bread), flannel cakes, battercakes, flippers, flitters, and fritters.  Since all of these are comprised of batters that are fried on a griddle (as opposed to being deep fried), I am going to file them under “pancake” and we will revisit them soon.

Until then, enjoy your doughnuts and doughnut holes (or fried holes as some call them), along with your fossnock, crullers and marvelles.  It’s a wide, wide world of influence when you’re talking about fried dough.


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What do you call the space under the roof?  The attic, right?

Oddly enough, attic was originally a Latin adjective, Atticus, meaning “from Attica [Greece]”.  This adjective became especially attached to a particular kind of decorative Greek structure, made of a small architectural ‘order’, placed above a taller, larger one.

Over time, attic becomes a term applied to a small space on top of a larger, main space. Attic is a familiar term now, but there have existed other names for this space in American English.

During the time of the Linguistic Atlas interviews (the 30s and 40s), lots of people in the northern states called this space the garret.  Originally, the word garret referred to a turret on top of a tower (a watch-tower); over time garret comes to mean the “uppermost floor of a house”.

In fact, in the same way we can now say that someone has “bats in their belfry”, in the 16th and 17th centuries, you could have claimed that someone’s “garret was unfurnished” and get the same message across.

In the south and south midland, loft was a common answer to the Atlas question about attic-space.  Loft came into English a long time ago, from Old Norse. Its original meaning was “air, sky” and then “upper room”.

Although the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) explains that it was the loft part of hayloft that traveled across the yard to become used for the area under the house roof, the OED documents the use of loft for “floor, story” dating back to the 14th c.

People living in states under the influence of Louisiana French (Gulf States plus Arkansas and Texas) showed a preference for gallery.  Gallery is a word that came into English from French, ultimately from the medieval Latin galeria (origins further back are uncertain), which referred to a “covered space for walking”, sometimes a space up off the ground.  If we’re up off the ground, it’s easy to see how this word comes to be applied to the attic.

A 1954 Sci-fi book cover. They have rocketships AND dinosaurs in their attic.

Also easy to understand is the use of overhead for attic-space (as in, “Oh, those old things? I put them in the overhead”).  Originally used this way in Pennsylvania, the use of overhead was more widespread by the late 1940s.  It was probably the Pennsylvania Deutsch, with their use of overden that contributed to the use and spread of overhead (overden from owwerdenn, another loan translation from German, which basically is over plus Tenne “floor”).

Other names for attic were cuddy (most likely a lexical gift from seafaring folk, as cuddy is a nautical term for a small room or closet), atticway, and (my personal favorite) sky parlor.

I want a sky parlor.

The next time you visit your “space under the rafters”, remember that a) there are more words for that than you think and b) there’s history tucked up under there too.


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Cottage cheese

Let’s start with a quick cheese primer.

Cheese at its most simple comes from milk that has curdled, its proteins separated into curds and whey.

Curds form when the casein proteins in milk coagulate.  This coagulation occurs naturally when raw (not pasteurized) milk sits out for about 3 days (sour milk is curdled milk), but the process can be hastened by the addition of rennet (which comes from the fourth stomach of an unweaned cud-chewer) or something acidic (such as lemon juice or vinegar).

After the curds form, the mixture can be poured through cheesecloth to separate the solid from the liquid.  The solid bits are what we commonly call cottage cheese.

Cottage cheese

The liquid left over is the whey, which can be used to make ricotta ‘cheese’.  (Ricotta is not technically a cheese, as its not made from casein proteins).   If allowed to become more acidic – by sitting out for 12-24 hours – whey forms its own curds; separate those out and you have ricotta.


The words curd, rennet, and whey are old, but the making of these simple cheeses is much older.  Someone, somewhere (an Arab nomad?  A European shepherd?) between 6000 to 8000 years ago, happened to carry milk around in a pouch made from the stomach of a sheep or a goat or a cow and, later on, was pleasantly surprised at how well the white globs that had formed went with crackers.

Maybe because cottage-style cheese is pretty easy to make, there are tons of regional terms for this kind of cheese.  Some of the regional terms arrived with first folks who settled there.  Take clabber for example.

In the 1930s and 40s, when the Linguistic Atlas interviews were conducted, clabber was the most common word that people used for cheese derived from curdling.  Clabber comes from the Irish and Gaelic word  clabar “mud”, a reflection perhaps of clabber’s appearance.

Clabber. It does look like white mud.

Speakers have come up with a lot of variations on the clabber theme, such as clabber cheese (common in the south), clabber milk and clabbered milk (common in the mid-Atlantic).   Speakers in Maryland and Virginia had their own version, bonney clabber, which linguists consider to be a ‘relic’ term (it’s an old term that survives among just a handful of speakers).

Another kind of variation has to do with pronunciation – people also used clobbered milk and coddled milk (apparently there are some mixed ideas about how you should treat your milk).

Clobbered milk may be a term that hints at another historical and cultural relationship.  You see, lobbered milk (and loppered milk) were two other common names for clabber cheese.

Loppert milk (or lappert milk) is the Scottish way of describing this same kind of cheese (“lopper” being a verb similar to “curdle” – used  both for milk and blood).  And we see lobber, lobbered milk, lopperd milk (and a dozen other variations) in the Atlas data, evidence of the Scots’ presence in early America.

Dutch cheese is a term that displays its historical roots more obviously.  Pot cheese is a little less obvious (pot cheese is dervied from pot kees, the Dutch term for this cheese).  The Dutch way of making cheese from curdled milk involves mixing buttermilk with the sour(ed) milk and, later, pressing the curds (into a pot or mold) to remove more moisture.  (Keep pressing and you get what is now commonly called farmer’s cheese, which is even more dry and a little crumbly.)

Vintage ceramic cheese mold

The Pennsylvania Deutsch term for clabber cheese was thick milk (after the German dickemilich).  More German influence shows up in the mid-Atlantic, where it is not uncommon to hear smear case for clabber cheese (smear case from the German smeerkase “cheese than can be smeared”).

German smeerkase

So why do we find cottage cheese in the grocery store today, instead of clabber cheese or lobbered milk?  Well, a name that evokes the idea of a simple, cottage-made cheese would serve nicely as an umbrella term for all of the cheeses whose names might have specific regional preparations associated with them.

Cottage cheese is an American term; it appears in print for the first time in Bartlett’s 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms as part of a definition of smear-case.  By the late 1950s, cottage cheese has traveled abroad.  A 1958 London Sunday Times article mentions, “Milk curd cheese, or cottage cheese as it is now sometimes called”.

And so, as the grocery store dairy section attests, an evocative name won out over regional and more descriptive designations.

There are personal variations too, when I was little, I called it "college cheese"

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Ottoman Empire

Empire Ottoman

The word ottoman (for furniture) first appears  in English in 1789, borrowed from the French (who appear to have borrowed the name from the Turks about 60 years prior).

Etymological rumor (i.e. “the internet”) has it that the ottoman name was given to this piece because the shape of the first ottoman footstools were tall and cylindrical, resembling the traditional hats worn by Turkish government officials.

Here’s a vintage hat.


And a vintage ottoman.

You decide.

At any rate, the French started a trend, as this piece (and its name) was borrowed into Italian (1797), Catalan (1888), Spanish (1849), and German (1772).

Whether the ottoman started off “tall and cylindrical” or not, today’s canonical ottoman is a “low upholstered seat without a back or arms” that also serves as storage “with the seat hinged to form a lid”.   Multipurpose is again king, which is probably why the ottoman (or storage ottoman) is so popular.

Shortly after the borrowing of ottoman, English borrows the term velours ottoman for a velvet-like fabric used for upholstering ottomans. Ottomen.  Whatever.

We can talk about fabric later.

Prior to the ottoman, the English people (and language) had footstools, the earliest term for which was a shamble, a common Germanic adoption from the Latin scamellum (for, um, ‘footstool’).

In writing, we see shamble occurring over a lengthy period of time, from 825 to the late 1400s, though the earliest uses of this particular term were mainly figurative.  For instance, the first example listed in the OED is a snippet that goes something like, “I won’t quit until I set your enemy as your footstool” (my creative translation). Shamble is later applied to a butcher’s stand at a meat market, and then to the market as a whole. By the 17th c, the word becomes a term for “chaos and disorder”, a reflection of the appearance of a street market crammed with stalls and tradespeople hawking their wares – a place in shambles.

Other early synonyms for footstool were the familiar, more general, labels of stool (with its first written appearance in 1250) and bench (1386), re-appropriated when needed to denote the responsibility of upholding feet.

Buffet is another potential synonym of ottoman.  Note that this is buffet with the “t” (not to be confused with buffet without the “t”, a member of the case furniture family).  Buffet (“t”) is a low footstool, a name and form still used by people in Scotland and northern parts of England.

In fact, it could be that Ms Muffet originally perched upon a buffet instead of tuffet.

Eating her curds and whey

Note that Ms Muffet is sitting on grass.  Well, as it happens, another term for an ottoman is hassock, from the Old English hassuc, related to the Welsh hesq, which means “sedge” (a kind of grass).  Hassock originally referred to a “tuft or clump of matted grass”, the tuft or clump also being called a tussock.

Tussocks (Hassocks)

It might be that tussock pushes buffet to become tuffet.

There’s more.

In the early 1500s, people writing about a hassock are talking about a “thick, firm cushion or bass, often stuffed with rushes or straw”  used especially in places of worship for kneeling.

Hassocks (tussocks) were cut from fields and then shaped and trimmed and brought into churches for people to kneel on.  Later on, as the ‘cushion’ moves into homes, straw hassocks are covered with fabric, and are eventually crafted more purposefully (if you will) as upholstered stools.

Bass, as appears in the definition of hassock above, is a phonetic corruption of bast, a word that originally  means “split rushes or straw” (read: grass) and also later expands to refer to something made out of such material (such as mats, baskets and, oh, I don’t know, hassocks).

The history implicit in an object such as this boggles the mind.

Allow me one last (near) synonym of ottoman.


From the French word for an “elaborate female headdress fashionable in the late 18th c”, pouf migrates somewhat as it comes to refer to a “part of a dress . . . gathered up to form a bunch” in the mid-19th c, and, finally, toward the end of that century, pouf is an ottoman.

Pouf. Just like that.

Both pouf and ottoman begin their word-lives on top of the head and travel an etymological journey to the space underneath our feet.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.

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The word mantel is a variant of mantle (from the Classical Latin mantellum ‘cloak’), a word borrowed into English very early on.

The fireplace use of mantel refers to the large “piece of timber or stone supporting the masonry above a fireplace”, which does have that sense of ‘covering’ or (at least) ‘flanking’ the fireplace.  The earliest mantels were either mantelstones or manteltrees, referring (obviously) to the material from which the mantel was made.

Mantelstone as a word is now considered “obsolete” and “rare”; the OED has only one quote containing this word, and it’s from 1357.

Manteltree is defined as “a beam across the opening of a fireplace, serving to support the masonry above” and is described as archaic, used regionally in England.  The most recent quote from the OED (a quote from 1876) equates the manteltree with “old-fashioned country-houses”.

Although . . . one speaker, a 77 year-old man from northeast Georgia, used mantelstone in his response to the Atlas fieldworker’s question about “mantels” in 1946.

And, a 82 year-old man from New York state gave manteltree shelf as his answer to that question in 1941, and manteltree was given by a man from South Carolina who was 100 years old when he was interviewed in 1941.

“Obsolete” and “archaic”?  Doesn’t mean it’s gone.  I’m betting there are still folks out there who use these.

At any rate, both the tree and the stone were architecturally imperative (I read “support the masonry above” to mean “keep the chimney from falling down inside the house”).

Initially, mantel includes everything around the fireplace (the beam/stone across the top and its supports), but these days, a mantel is merely “ornamental” and does no supporting (half the time it doesn’t even have supports itself – it’s just a mantelshelf).

So, a mantel is the same thing as a mantelstone and a manteltree. Ok, we also have a mantelpiece (which the OED defines as a manteltree or mantelshelf), a mantelplace (the southern version of mantelpiece), a mantelshelf (which is a mantel), and a mantelboard (another southern term, this time for a mantelshelf or mantelpiece).


Perhaps a diagram would help.

Now that we’re all straight, let’t talk about regional preferences for these mantel-something terms.  Mantel itself is the generic name (although mantle is used regionally in the Northeast and North Central states to mean “a small shelf on the wall”, illustrating a migration of the mantel from the fireplace to the walls).  Mantelboard is a term used by people in Texas and the lower Mississippi River valley.  Mantelpiece might sound familiar to those in the middle and south Atlantic states.  Mantelplace was a term given by two younger speakers (in the 1980s) from southern Alabama.  Mantelshelf is a term from the Gulf States and, finally, manteltree is found in New England (though it is described there as being ‘old-fashioned’).

In addition to all of the ‘mantel’ terms, there is a set of chimney-something terms as well.  The chimneypiece, which started its etymological life as a piece of art, often referred to a tapestry hung over fireplace.  Tapestry over a fireplace?  That doesn’t seem like a good idea.  Perhaps relatedly, this particular meaning of chimneypiece is now obsolete.

Luckily, chimneypiece now means the same (according to the OED) as mantel and/or mantelshelf.  We also see chimneyshelf amid the Atlas interviewee’s responses, mostly in New England. Unfortunately, there’s no chimneyboard to round out the set, though it certainly seems like there should be.

We should all start calling this a chimneyboard

Whereas the ‘chimney’ set was somewhat lacking in analogous terms for mantle, the fire-something group more than makes up for it.

We have fireboard (common in the south, especially Appalachia, perhaps due to Scots-Irish influence), fireledge (from speakers in Minnesota there), firepiece (uttered at least once, in Oklahoma in 1970), and fireplace shelf (a term associated with New Hampshire especially, but found across the northern US states).

Lastly, we have firemantel.

Texas.  1960s.  Firemantel is a blending of (or really, an uncompounding and then blending of) the southern fireboard with the generic mantel.  Linguist E. Bagby Atwood described this specific term as an example of what happens when “two synonyms are about equally prominent in the speaker’s mind.”  You have two attractive options.  You can’t decide.  Use both.

A mantel/chimney/fire-shelf/piece/board/place

There are other names for mantel that focus on the ‘you can put stuff on it’ aspect, such as clockshelf, clock mantel, lampshelf, and candleboard, but those’ll have to wait for another day.

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What would you call this?

A skillet?  A frying pan?  How about a spider?


Yes.  The first “frying pans” in early America were for hearth cooking, set over a small pile of coals that would be pulled out onto the hearth to use as a ‘burner’.  You had two options for cooking over the coals: use a flat-bottomed pan set on top of an iron trivet or use a spider. Spider was the word used for an iron vessel that had three legs and a long handle, presumably earning its name due to its similarity in appearance to an arachnid.

A spider

Ok, so that one looks more like an apatosaurus.

But you get the idea.

The use of spider for a three-legged, long-handled pot is an American label.  Other English terms for the same type of pot include yetling and posnet, the former from an old Germanic root meaning “to pour” and the latter an Anglo-Norman word first appearing in print in 1350.  Posnet hangs around for a while, even popping up in an American-penned article for the News Journal (from Ohio), published in 1969.

I googled "posnet" and actually found this. So it's still hanging around (at least for antiques collectors).

The introduction of the iron cookstove in the mid 1700s meant that pots didn’t need feet anymore, and the name spider migrated from the hearth to the stovetop as it was applied to the now flat-bottomed iron pans used there.  So it is here that the forms of the spider and skillet collide, turning the words into (near) synonyms, instead of labels for different kinds of pan.

Although skillet was the favored term throughout the Atlantic states in the 1930s and 40s, Linguistic Atlas data shows that spider was a frequent term in New England as well as in eastern Virginia and the Carolinas.  At that time, frying pan was the choice of people in urban areas, and we see the presence today of frying pan (and its uber-trendy offspring, fry pan) as our ‘generic’ label.

We do have a spate of pans to choose from, each (supposedly) tailored for a specific function.  In addition to frying pans, we have saute pans (the OED definition of saute is “fried in a pan with a little butter over a high heat, while being tossed from time to time” – ‘saute’ is the new ‘fry’).  And if saute pan isn’t fancy enough, you can also find a sauteuse (which must be . . . a female saute pan?).


My four-year-old saw this picture and said, "are you writing to ask why the smoke detector goes off every time you use it?"

And we have the iron girdle.  (Griddle as it’s spelled now.  The word has undergone what we linguists call metathesis, the switching of two adjacent sounds, bird used to be brid too.)  If it’s round with a handle (looking like the skillet it is), you can call it a grill pan.

Next, we’ll look at some fireplace terms cause, well, you know what they say, “Out of the frying pan . . . “.


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