The Grammarphobia Blog

Splatter proof

Q: I’m still getting over learning that I mispronounced “chimera” for over 60 years. I’d been saying SHIM-era. Who knew? Anyway, I was wondering about the relationship between “spatter” and “splatter”?

A: This will give us a chance to discuss one of our favorite words, “spatula.” (We know you’re eager, but you’ll just have to wait a bit.)

The word “splatter” means splash or spatter. It’s described by the Oxford English Dictionary as chiefly dialectal, and used mostly in the US.

The verb “splatter” dates from the late 18th century and the noun from the 19th. As for its source, the OED says it’s “imitative” in origin, meaning that its sound is an echo of what the word symbolizes.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology has another suggestion—that “splatter” is “perhaps a blend of spatter and splash,” which seems logical

Now, on to “spatter, which is much older than “splatter” and has Germanic origins. In Dutch and Low German, for example, spatten means to burst or spout, the OED says.

When the verb “spatter” was first recorded in English, in the late 1500s, it meant “to scatter or disperse in fragments,” says Oxford.

Early in the following century, it acquired the meanings familiar today—to splash or fall on something in scattered drops or particles.

The noun “spatter,” meaning a small splash or sprinkle, came along in the late 1700s.

You ask whether there’s a relationship between “spatter” and “splatter.” It’s possible. As we mentioned, Chambers speculates that “splatter” might be a blend of “spatter” and “splash,” but there’s a more solidly documented link.

In the late 1600s, men wore cloth or leather leggings to protect their trousers from spatters, especially while riding horseback. These were called, appropriately, “spatterdashes.” (Yes, this is the granddaddy of the later abbreviation “spats.”)

The old “spatterdashes” had several variants, including “splatterdashes” (18th century) and “spatter-plashes” (17th century).

What’s a “plash”? The noun “plash,” meaning something like a shallow pool or puddle, dates back to Old English and was altered in the 17th century to become “splash.”

OK, we’re now ready to discuss “spatula,” which we like simply for its combination of sounds.

It comes from Latin, in which spatula (or spathula) means a broad piece, but its ultimate source is the Greek spathe (a broad blade).

If you go back far enough, however, the words “spatula,” “spade,” and “spoon” share a prehistoric ancestor, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

In English, “spatula” has always meant a long, flat implement for mixing or spreading.

It entered the language in the 15th century but it has had some variant forms over the centuries. These include “spattle,” “spartle,” and (as you’ve probably guessed) “spatter” and “splatter.”

Books on etymology make very entertaining reading!

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