The Grammarphobia Blog

Filling a few holes in the origin of spackle

Q: I’m reading your posting on “splatter” and “spatula.” Are those words also related to “spackle,” which I splatter and spread with a type of spatula?

A: Well, there may be a relationship here, or maybe not. We’ll try to fill a few holes, but the etymology is far from certain.

“Spackle” is a registered trademark, though we didn’t realize it until we began looking into your question.

The product, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a compound used to fill cracks in plaster and produce a smooth surface before decoration.”

Though it’s still a proprietary name, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says, “this trademark often occurs in lowercase and as a verb in print.”

American Heritage gives this example from the New York Times: “Two young men quietly spackled and whitewashed the walls … for an exhibition.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has separate entries for the noun and the verb: (1) “Spackle,” capitalized, as the trademarked name of the product, and (2) “spackle,” lowercased, for the verb meaning “to apply Spackle paste to.”

Spackle was created and brought to market in 1927 by the Muralo Company, which patented it in 1928 and still has the trademark. Now a paste, Spackle was originally a dry powder that the user mixed with water.

Should the word be capitalized? We’d lowercase it unless we were referring to the Muralo product. The term “spackle” is now used for so many similar hole-and-crack-filling products that the trademark has lost its distinctiveness.

Where did the word come from? The Muralo website doesn’t say. The OED tells us that the word’s origin is “uncertain,” but it suggests a couple of possibilities.

First, there could be a connection between “spackle” and the verb “sparkle,” which was used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a technical term meaning “to overlay or daub with cement or the like.” (Who knew?)

Second, there’s a similarity with the German word spachtel (meaning a putty knife, mastic, or filler). The German term, the OED says, was originally a 16th-century variant of Spatel (spatula), from the Italian word for the same thing, spatola.

As we said in our earlier posting, “spatula” has had many variant forms since it entered English in the 15th century, including “spattle,” “spartle,” “spatter,” and “splatter.”

Perhaps there’s a spatula hidden in the etymology of “spackle” as well.

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