Since it’s still going to be de facto winter for a while, I thought I’d ease us into doughnut review season with an explanation of why I don’t use the vernacular spelling, donut, and decisively prefer “doughnut.”
Scene: Mrs. Wiener’s English class. We had a small in-class spelling bee and I was sure I had it in the bag. Primarily concerned with the harder words towards the end, I wasn’t focused on the boring initial rounds of easy ones.
It was my turn. Doughnut.
“D-O-N-U-T,” I spouted.
I think, deep down, I knew better, but the popular short spelling came too easily. I was out.
That traumatic experience is part of why I always spell “doughnut” in its full, and, in my opinion, correct form. But there’s more to it than that.
You can find one of the first written definitions of the word “doughnut” in Washington Irving’s 1809 satire History of New York, as he describes treats served at high-class tea parties:
balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks—a delicious kind of cake
You can tell from the passage that at this point in time, doughnuts more closely resembled what we now call a doughnut hole, so the “nut” refers to it being a small round lump rather than the ring-shaped fastener that’s meant to be mated to a bolt (holes aren’t mentioned until around 1861, so the common speculation that “nut” is a variant spelling of “naught” or zero in reference to the hole seems off). It’s funny how it still works with the modern form of this pastry, though.
The contraction “donut” first appears around 1870, but its rise in use coincides with the founding of the Massachusetts-based chain Dunkin’ Donuts in 1950. Correlation is not causation, but the strength of this enduring brand is hard to dismiss.
Nowadays, the full spelling is used more often outside the United States while it seems like most Americans have embraced the abbreviated version.
Language Evolves. Get Over It.
Simplified spelling is as American as, well, the doughnut itself. So why do I cling to the old spelling? I empathize with spelling reform, but ultimately, I believe that it’s more important for words to convey meaning than be easy to spell. Whatever you want “nut” to be—the chunk, the fastener, the reference to emptiness—the “dough” is unambiguous: a thick paste of flour. It’s the foundation upon which this dessert is built.
Secondly, are we really going to allow silly restaurant chains to meaninglessly change our language? If the folks at Olive Garden start writing UNLIMITED BREADSTIX everywhere, here’s hoping we’re strong enough to resist.
And finally, there’s more at stake here. One of my major complaints with the current trend of artisanal doughnuts is the narrow focus on toppings. Innovative frostings and glazes are fun and they’re often the first thing you taste as you bite down. But that enjoyment is fleeting if it’s followed by a dry, overly dense, aftertaste-ridden pastry. The dough is vital. Let’s not obscure its role in the experience.