Do not mess with the doughnut (or donut?)

English is a language chock full of quirks that can make it extremely frustrating, or at least baffling, to deal with. One of these cases takes us to the bakery, to a cornerstone of American cuisine that has experienced a split over the centuries. I’m talking about the doughnut … or donut?

The doughnut as we know it started humbly as the dough-nut, also referred to as an “oliekoek,” literally “oily cake,” deriving from the dessert’s Dutch origins. Over time, dough-nut became doughnut, adopting a slight grammatical change for clarity and ease of spelling.

At an unknown point in the mid-20th century, however, the “donut” emerged, and the spelling has since stuck around at the fringes of English, used less than its predecessor but enough to cause debate in certain circles and to provide a significant amount of variation in usage.

The divergence of the donut is attributed to a few causes. One is the spelling reform that took place in the early 1800s, as Noah Webster began to develop his comprehensive dictionary of English words. The movement was fueled with nationalist tones (see: the change from the British “colour” to “color”) but was mainly focused on standardizing what was, at the time, a fairly disjointed language.

Other vocabularic shifts followed, focusing on phonetic spelling (taking into issue the “gh” in doughnut’s “dough”) and the progressive standardization and simplification of English. Spelling reforms saw support by such American luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie and Theodore Roosevelt, even leading to the establishment of the Simplified Spelling Board in 1906 (which carried with it various other undertones as part of the Progressive reforms going on at the time).

Through these movements, “donut” remained, paradoxically. Although it aligned with simplification in terms of phonetics, the fact that two spellings remained was not a part of the utopian, uniform English language so aspired toward.  

A possible source of the donut’s longevity may be commercial, as the chain Dunkin’ Donuts and its competitor, Mister Donuts, use the variant in their titles and merchandising. Even Berkeley’s Kingpin uses the deviant “donut.”

Out of this lengthy tale, “doughnut” emerges as a technical victor, being the official AP Stylebook choice for usage. “Donut” is almost universally listed as a variant, or as in the Oxford dictionary, the U.S.-specific spelling. Donut takes a solid second place, in my book.

I find deviations like these so interesting because they require me to think just a little harder about the words we use and spell and delve into why they (might) matter. Who knew doughnut existed at such a unique intersection of American, cultural and commercial history, all flavored with a slight tinge of vocabularic pretentiousness?

As a copy editor, details are integral to the job. Grammar corrections are nitty-gritty, certain rules can be hyper-specific, and we often find ourselves asking why we do things the way we do. But oftentimes, these little rules, variations and stylizations have significance or a storied past, if you’re willing to look.

Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @cbell_DC.

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  • Joe Little

    Nice article. I won’t besmirch your doe-eyed motives, but will malign your reference to doughnut as the more frequent of the two spellings: “[donut] has since stuck around..used less than its predecessor but enough to cause debate.” No, ma’am: a Google search shows that ‘donut’ is thrice as frequently used as ‘doughnut’ in American usage. The Daily Californian is American. What gives with your easily debunked reversal of facts?

  • mashabell

    I wonder why u prefer ‘doughnut’ to ‘donut’? For job security perhaps? If English spelling was made more sensible – http://improvingenglishspelling.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/suggestions-for-modernising-english.html – people would misspell less often and there would be less need for editing. It was probably mainly for job security reasons that 15th C court clerks century made English spelling less penetrable by changing previously regular spellings like ‘leve, sleve, beleve’ to ‘leave, sleeve, believe’, when they had to switch from the hitherto superior French to lowly English: http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/history-of-english-spelling.html

  • So, you follow the rule book, the stile book. I guess, as an editor, the phones in the Dailycal would go off the hook or the quantity of letters to the editor would reflect the dismay of some reader if you did use “donut” or some other questionable variants enough that you would be fearing losing your job. Could you please tell me if this is so? I really want to know.

  • Vark

    Dough as in plough, cough, through, bough or borough? The ough/augh (laugh) letter-string has many values – none of the words above rhyme. Is it any wonder we have high levels of illiteracy in the English speaking world? These quaint archaisms could be usefully re-spelled. See: The English Spelling Society (spellingsociety.org)

  • ShadrachSmith

    Communication is translating an idea into code, then decoding the word back into an idea in the mind of the reader. Grammar is conventions for use of a common code. Texting and Twitter have shortened [cleaned up] the code, which is a good thing. Stile books are dedicated to standardizing the code…best of luck :-)

    • But, the hidden question posed in this article is whether or not the standardization is right. You might not think of it much, but there are billions of kids who have been and will be bewildered at some time by the hundreds of thousands of phonemes that do not match the right letters, about the hundreds of thousands of rules that are “errurz”. Just think of the innocent kids who must “make that decision”, when the signal that is supposed to be red is actually orange or green. How would you feel crossing that road when the signal turns red? Repeat as many times as there are words to be read by a child in Grade 1! Consequences: http://www.childrenofthecode.org/Tour/c3c/index.htm Best of luck!

    • mashabell

      Indeed. Stile books for English help to perpetuate a severely damaged code.

  • AllanJC

    An interesting dissertation. While doughnut may be the “official” form, “donut” is better spelling. And as spelling is supposed to help us become literat (sic) mor easily and with less trauma, the shorter version wins hands down!