A question of cutlery: terminology.


As with most things with hundreds of years of evolving history eating utensils have a myriad of different descriptions and terms, often for the same object. This is further compounded by the fact that traditional western eating utensils are used over a wide geographic area, and often the traditions of one people is quite different to that of another.

The general catchall term for silver eating utensils is “flatware” or “silver flatware”, (as opposed to “hollowware” which is used for hollow vessels such as jugs, dishes etc). However, the more widely used term now is cutlery, or Silver Cutlery, which originally referred only to the silver knives. A cutler was a knife maker, and while he fashioned the knife handles from silver the blades were always made in harder steel.

Thus the profession of cutler was separate and distinct to that of the silversmith despite the predominance of silver cutlery or silver flatware as compared to that of other materials.

Later of course, particularly in Sheffield, where the best British steel was made, cutlers began to make other eating utensils such as silver spoons and silver forks, traditionally the preserve of silversmiths.

Thus nowadays people generally refer to eating utensils as cutlery.


A matching set of cutlery is generally termed a Canteen, whether it is boxed or not. The word canteen can also be used to refer to the box alone, although to avoid confusion many refer to it as a “canteen box”. However, as well as canteen many refer to a full set of eating utensils as a “service”. This is more formal, and perhaps more correct.

It is more proper to refer to solid silver cutlery as “silver cutlery” or “silver flatware”, however people do refer to silver plate cutlery and flatware simply as silver cutlery, perhaps adding later that it is “not solid”. This differentiates it from the harder stainless steel cutlery most people use now. Sterling is a term generally used in America to differentiate from the lower grade coin silver. All British made cutlery is Sterling while continental cutlery can be a number of different grades. However, it is still correct to call it solid silver cutlery, and differentiate it from silver plate cutlery.


The pieces themselves are worth discussing also, as the terminology is confused and confusing! One may refer to a silver dessert knife or an silver entrée knife. The difference? Simply the use to which you are putting the utensil at the time of use! There is no practical difference between a dessert knife or an entrée knife- they are the same object. To make matters even more confusing our American Cousins often refer to the same object as a “Luncheon knife”, as it was typical in the States to eat lunch with the smaller utensils if you had them, reserving the larger pieces for dinner. Indeed, many American services do not have the smaller knives, instead preferring to use a small silver butter spreader, and to serve either soup or salad as a starting course.

Silver Dessert fork, Silver entrée fork, Silver salad fork or Silver side fork can all refer to the same piece, although a salad fork often has three rather than four prongs.

Silver Dessert knife, Silver entrée knife, Silver luncheon knife or Silver side knife can all refer to the same piece. Some people incorrectly call the same piece a Silver butter knife, but a butter knife is smaller still, often with a solid silver blade, as there is no need for a sharp cutting edge.

Dinner and Table are similar interchangeable terms for the larger main course pieces. A silver Dinner knife is the same as a Silver Table knife, and a Silver Dinner fork is the same as a Silver Table fork. A Silver Dinner spoon can be referred to as a Silver Table spoon, or indeed a Silver Serving spoon. In fact, while in the late 17th and even early 18th century it was typical to eat with such a spoon, as fashions changed the spoon was also intended for serving oneself, as dining “A La Française” involved many varied dishes served at the table, from which guests could choose. Furthermore, the predominance of soups and ragouts on the menu necessitated a spoon with a large bowl. The soup spoon many of us now use was in fact a mid 19th century American innovation which took hold in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Article by James Baldwin

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