- June 5, 2012
- Posted by: Madrigal Admin
- Category: Word of the Week Blog
I am seeking the word for a fork with four tines as opposed to one with three tines or two tines. My investigations have taken me all around the house and I only have part of an answer. I did, however, learn something about nearly every other type of fork that has ever been invented (see Strange flatware). So if anyone can help I would be pleased to hear an answer.
Table forks were not generally used in England until after the 15th century. The word forca existed in Old English but it described a farm implement or a forked instrument used for torture. It derived from the Latin word furca used for pitchfork; or a fork used in cooking; or the A-shaped frame that was used by the Romans to scourge (whip) criminals to death.
Table forks were popularised in England by Thomas Coryat (c. 1577 – 1617) a travel writer (and acting court jester to the Prince of Wales), whose first volume of travel writing included descriptions of superior Italian eating habits that promoted the use of table forks into England (his description of Italians shading themselves also brought the word umbrella into English). He was nicknamed Furcifer, a wonderful Latin pun meaning fork-bearer or rascal.
I have always thought that forks and spoons, as well as knives, are cutlery but, on this, British and American English have diverged. In the US, spoons and forks are flatware and the knives are cutlery. The US is more correct than the UK. Cutlery, is what is made by a cutler and cutler comes from Old French coutelier, from coutel meaning knife, and originally from Latin cultellus, from culter meaning knife or ploughshare. However, cutlers did sell forks and spoons as well.
Spoon comes from Old English for a chip or a shaving and derives from a Germanic word. It is likely that a spoon got its name because, carved from wood, it resembled a wood chip or shaving. Knife is derived from an Old English word, cnif, also of German origin.
Prongs and tines
The definition of a (table) fork according to the OED is an implement with two or more prongs used for lifting food to the mouth or holding it when cutting.
A prong (from Medieval Latin pronga) is a sharp projection on a device such as a plough or machine. A tine has a similar meaning but is much older and comes from Old English, tind, from Germanic languages, for instance, the Old Norse tindr meaning tine, point, top, summit. However, I prefer tine as it is more closely linked to forks than is prong.
I was hoping that the number of tines would be significant and may have given us a few distinctive types, but it is not quite so.
If an eating implement has one tine it is a spike (or perhaps an ork).
If it has two tines it has become a fork. It should be noted that when you come to a fork in a road you have a choice of only two roads which indicates that two tines is a strong fork. Also note that bifurcate means to fork into two (perhaps a two-tined fork is a bifork).
A trident, also known as a leister, is not strictly a fork but a three-pronged spear (trident comes via French from the Latin tridentis for tri meaning three and dentes for teeth) and here the trail runs dry.
I was left to the Urban Dictionary to find any distinction between a three and a four-tined implement. This dictionary is not historically useful nor etymologically reliable but is a fairly dynamic reference for contemporary words. It defines a fork with three tines to be a threek and one with four tines to be a fourk, which, I am afraid to say, is the best I can do.
Image with kind permission of Doug Savage at www.savagechickens.com.