So I’m standing at the sink the other night washing pots and pans. And I think “spatula” is such a strange word. Who thought of that? In a novel I was reading a while back, I recall the description of a character’s fingers as “spatulate.” That sounds Latinate, as in “of or pertaining to Latin in origin.”
At a wedding dinner one night, when I was still a young teacher, a man sitting across from me said he thought of English as mostly a Latin-based language. Well, I remember saying, there are Anglo-Saxon roots. Tell me one word, he said, that does not come from Latin. I thought for a minute, then another minute, then excused myself to go to the men’s room. I knew there must be hundreds, probably thousands of words. I just couldn’t name any.
Damn, what are they?
Damn, is that one? Damn, from Middle English (dampnen, also damnen, dammen, late 13c), from old French. So, nope.
What the hell.
Wait. Hell, from Old English and Proto-Germanic haljō, Old Saxon hellia. Bingo.
In the decades that followed, when the question arose, I was ready to trot out a list of words with Anglo-Saxon origins. Bedrock terms, especially one-syllable words. Earth, ground, dirt. Man, woman. Men’s room! Body lingo: knee, bone, gut, foot. Itch, cling, cough, sneeze. Along with our favorite unsayables: Shit, fuck, cock, cunt. If only I’d known about those that night at the wedding…
Spatula, then. You think: okay, three syllables. Ends in a vowel. Must be Latin. Really? Standing there at the sink, I hold up the spatula I’m washing, ask my wife what she calls this thing.
“Spatula,” she says.
“No, in Italian, I mean.”
“What did your mother call a spatula?”
She says finally she doesn’t remember. They didn’t use spatulas that much in the kitchen. They used wooden spoons.
Fun with etymology. I have to look. Spatula, from Latin spatula, diminutive of spatha “broad, flat tool or weapon,” from Greek spathe “broad flat blade (used by weavers). See also spade.
I do see spade, within a day or so. Out of the blue one morning an Instagram post appears in my photo feed. One of her cousins in Italy, beneath a photo, has written, “Spada o croce?” Sword or cross?
(Sword! Proto-Germanic *swerdam, source also of Old Saxon, Old Frisian swerd.)
Spada, spatula, spade. When my wife digs in the garden, she says “hand me that spade.” I use the same implement, which I call a shovel (Proto-Germanic skublo, Middle Low German schufle).
About ten years ago, I lost my favorite spatula. Small, light, flexible plastic; white. With a smooth wooden handle, it was ideal for dragging the last bits of jam out of the bottom of a jar, for squeegee-ing the remainders of ragu from the side of a pan. A fine thing to shove good grub around. Then it disappeared into thin air. Waste basket, someone’s house, I just don’t know. It sounds silly, it is silly, but I was bereft. For a few years I haunted spatula stores, I stood hopefully in kitchen accessory aisles, searched shelves (“shelf,” late 14c., from Middle Low German schelf). I bought a few imperfect replacement spatulas. They did not fill the void (from Anglo-French voider).
Spatulas matter. They are not a dime a dozen. You find just the right one, it is love. In your hand, it is a friend. In your mouth the word feels scratchy and special (SPATCH-you-luh), makes me glad I cook, glad even to wash dishes.
“Are you almost done?” she says.
“Yes, almost. I just have to wash this spatula.”
Last word, good word.