Thursday, September 8, 2016

Word of the day: spatula

Spatula : what’s up with that?

Webster’s Third has a remarkable definition:

a thin flexible dull-edged usu. metal implement used esp. for spreading or mixing soft substances (as paint, plaster, ointment, frosting), scooping, or lifting (as in removing cookies from a pan).
I like the unsettling series — paint, plaster, ointment, frosting — and the surprising touch of coziness at the end. I hope there will be milk with the cookies.

The word spatula looks like Latin, and it is. It’s from Late Latin. And here things get interesting: all that W3 says is “more at EPAULET.”

Epaulet (“something that ornaments or protects the shoulder”) comes from the French épaulette, the diminutive of épaule, which means “shoulder.” Épaule comes from the Old French espaule , which itself comes from the Late Latin spatula or spathula , which means “shoulder blade, spoon for stirring.” Spatula or spathula is the diminutive of the Latin spatha , which means “wooden spoon, sword.” And spatha comes from the Greek spathē , “blade of a loom, oar, or sword.”

And here the dictionary tells us that there’s “more at SPADE.” And there is: the Greek spathē is the source of spade as the name of a card suit (♠︎). The Greek word also figures in the history of the word spade as the name of an implement, a word with a different, more complicated history: “more at SPOON.”

And now I wondered: if the Latin spatula is the diminutive of a word that means “sword,” could spatula have something to do with spat ? A petty quarrel, like a fight with little swords and not larger weapons? Apparently not. W3 says that that spat is “prob. of imit. origin.” And by the way, spat as in fancy footwear is short for spatterdash , “a usu. knee-high legging worn as a protection from water and mud.”

Having learned about spathē , I thought I understood why we have shoulder-blades . But the English-language shoulder-blade is the scapula , not spatula . And scapula explains scapular.

I will never look at a thin flexible dull-edged usu. metal implement in the same way.

[Spatula , capitalized, is also the name of “a genus of ducks consisting of the shovelers and often included in Anas .” Uncapitalized, spatula also means “a spatulate [shaped like a spatula] process on the body of an insect.”]

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