“The term spatula is used for a broad category of tools, and every kitchen should be stocked with an equally broad array of spatulas.” — Marie Simmons, in our own book Things Cooks Love: Implements, Ingredients, Recipes.
When I first started working at Sur La Table, I quickly ran into a conundrum: Why did we use the word “turner” to describe spatulas? You know, spatulas? The thing you flip over pancakes with? (Yeah, and other stuff, but I like pancakes.)
This kind of spatula:
Would “Weird Al” steer you wrong? This isn’t a mockumercial for “Turner City.”
This, of course, was narrow-minded provincialism on my part. There are, in fact, people — people outside the kitchen gadget industry! — who call those things “turners.”
They are, however, a linguistic minority — though one with more industry buy-in than people who use the word “flippers.”
I figured this out because I’m a giant trivia nerd and language enthusiast, so I wanted to answer a basic question: What’s the difference between a spatula and a turner?
Here’s the deal, though: Everyone’s right! Yay, everyone!
OK, OK. Almost everyone. The only people who aren’t right are the ones who insist that a turner or flipper is not, in fact, a spatula.
“Spatula,” as it turns out, is a fairly old word* — the Oxford English Dictionary dates it to 1525. As a terrific piece by Neal Whitman details, it’s related to spade (the garden tool), spade (the card suit), spay, epée, and epaulet. And a quick look at almost any dictionary indicates that spatula is a broad term describing a tool that’s got a flat end on a handle. Uses include mixing, spreading, turning, scraping, and stirring.
Things that some people think distinguish spatulas from turners:
- material (metal or wood vs. rubber or silicone)
- use (spreading things vs. flipping things over)
- shape (narrow vs. broad)
- holes or slots (none vs. some)
Thing that actually distinguishes spatulas from turners:
A turner or flipper is one kind of spatula, specifically designed to be good at turning (or flipping) things over.
So it’s fine to call your pancake-inversion device a turner, or a flipper, but neither is the “correct” term. Just like it’s fine to call your keytar or your harpsichord a keyboard instrument, but not all keyboard instruments are keytars. (Alas.)
(And yes, this means that Spatula City’s claims that they carry spatulas of every shape, size, and color are false advertising, unless there’s a rubber spatula side room they don’t show in the commercial. Alert the FCC.)
In fact, there are a number of other words you might use to describe a spatula or turner. The Dictionary of American Regional English includes nine synonyms used in various regions of the country:
- pancake turner, “widespread” (no pun intended)
- egg turner
- cake turner
There are probably more out there! You know how people talk.
So: How do you know which spatula someone is talking about?
Context, usually. “Quick, hand me that spatula!” means something different if you’re cooking latkes than it does if you’re whipping up cupcake batter, and it means something still different if you’re being swarmed by savage pancake wasps.**
As you might guess, the real distinguisher between different kinds of spatulas or turners is that initial word. Looking around at various cookbooks, gear guides, and retail websites turns up a bunch of specific spatula (or turner) types: All-around spatula, rubber spatula, offset spatula, silicone spatula, metal turner, cookie spatula, angled spatula, fish turner, stir-fry paddle, wooden spatula, etc.
Why don’t people just use the word “turner”?
For one thing, “turner” as a generic term for the kitchen tool is probably more recent than “spatula.” The OED doesn’t actually list the kitchen tool as a definition; their definition “one who or that which turns” does not include a pancake or other turner in the citations. So it’s new.
For another, there are plenty of people who have no idea what a “turner” is. It’s more common for people to call the pancake-flipping implement a “spatula” than it is for them to call it a “turner.” And if you think of it as a spatula, “turner” is not necessarily a word you’re going to think to use instead.
On our own website, in fact, we combined Spatulas and Turners into one category after we noticed customers getting confused. They would look at the Spatulas category, see a bunch of silicone stirrers, and wonder where the burger flippers were.
Now Spatulas and Turners cohabitate at SurLaTable.com, along with some scrapers and spreaders for good measure. (Sorry, “flipper”-istas. Your numbers aren’t mighty enough to add a third word to the category name.)
To sum up:
- “Spatula” includes multitudes.
- “Turner” is a fine word to use for some kinds of spatulas, but is not the only correct word.
- Whatever you call them, spatulas are a kitchen must-have. You probably can’t have too many.
*It was not invented (or coined) by a man named John Spaduala, despite what a certain spatula fan site would have you believe.
**This means you’re dreaming. Wake up!
Let us know: What do you call it in your house? Is that different from the word your parents or grandparents used?
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