by Mark Gwynn
We asked a question on social media last week about a commonly used kitchen utensil, and were overwhelmed by the response. The utensil in question (pictured) has a broad flat blade and is used for lifting and turning food. We asked ‘what do you call this implement’ and ‘which country do you come from’.
The following analysis of the feedback we received demonstrates a number of points:
- the word spatula is now the most common term for this utensil in Australia and North America
- there are regional differences in world English designations for this utensil
- hypernymic words such as lifter and turner are often applied to this utensil
- it frequently attracts a thingummy or whatsit type of response, implying its name is not known
- and it attracts names that suggest it has other uses, real or imaginary, such as bum warmer and fly swatter.
We received over 500 replies to our question on Twitter and Facebook. The pie chart below shows the most common terms from all replies. Spatula is the most common term, followed by egg flip and fish slice. The numbers for spatula are slightly inflated because of the larger number of responses we had from Australia and North America, where this term is more common. It is also important to note that egg flip is used only by Australians. The word spatula has historically been used to refer to an implement with a broad, flat, blunt blade, used for mixing and spreading things, especially in cooking and painting.The Oxford Dictionaries site includes a sense of spatula that encompasses our lifting/turning implement, but labels it US. Early US dictionaries and many current ones still do not include this sense of spatula. This more recent sense of spatula is now widespread in English, as some of the following regional pie charts show.
The Australian numbers indicate that spatula is by far the most common term used here for this implement. Egg flip, also common, is used by nobody but Australians. Similar terms are chiefly Australian in usage: egg slice, egg lifter, egg flipper, egg slide, egg lift, and lifter.
Spatula is the most common term used in North America. Canadian responses were fewer, but largely aligned with US responses. There is less diversity of terms compared to Australia, but this may be a result of the raw numbers. The hypernymic terms flipper and turner are quite pronounced in the North American data. (A hypernym is a word with a broad meaning—a category into which words with more specific meanings fall.) While turner wasn’t common in Australian responses, it is often found on the packaging of these utensils in Australian shops.
In the UK fish slice is the most common term. The Oxford English Dictionary records this sense of slice from the 15th century. It means ‘one or other of several flattish utensils (sometimes perforated) used for various purposes in cookery…’. The specific use of slice as an implement to turn fish in the pan, and later for lifting and turning other foods, appears much later.
The New Zealand responses, like those from the UK, reveal that fish slice is the common term for this implement, followed by spatula. New Zealanders also share the term egg slice with their Australian neighbours.
As well as the common terms shown in the pie charts above, a number of terms were one-offs or given only by a couple of people. Quite a few people didn’t know what to call this implement, and gave a thingummy or whatsit type of response. For example, in some households it is referred to as: no the other thing; no, no, the metal one; the flippy thing; and that thingy. A number of replies suggested other (sometimes joking) uses for the implement: ass whacker; spider swatter; bottle opener of last resort; poopa scoopa; and bondage/discipline toy. And for every rissole squasher, foodspanker, and burger flipper, we also had a furrowed rhomboid, 15 degree offset closed-tine spork, and Flippy McFlip Face.
Last but not least we had a number of terms from languages other than English. From Sweden and Norway we had stek(e)spade, translating as ‘frying shovel or spade’ in English. From Spain we had espumadesa, espatula, and rasera. From Germany we had Pfannewender—a ‘pan flip’ or ‘pan flippy thing’, I’m reliably told. We had pannas lapstina from Latvia, une spatule metallique from France, and, from Hebrew, kaf tigun, translating as ‘frying spoon’.
Thank you to everyone who replied to our question. If you weren’t sure about what the name for this implement was, you now have plenty of words to choose from.