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.