As with other specialized skills, cooking possesses its own vocabulary, and its own set of handy tools and utensils. This can be frustrating for novices, especially when a single term is used to refer to multiple utensils. A prime example is the word spatula, which is applied to a number of different implements. To eliminate confusion, many cooks opt to use alternative terms such as “flipper” or “turner” to describe specific types of spatula.
A Pragmatic Etymology
The word spatula comes down to us from the Greek “spathe,” a sword-shaped wooden tool used by weavers. The Romans appropriated the term for their sword, the “spatha,” and used “spathula” — its diminutive — for smaller, sword-shaped tools. In recent centuries, that term has been extended to many flat implements, including the rubber spatula you use to scrape a mixing bowl, the flippers and turners you employ with your eggs or pancakes, and even the flat, flexible metal utensil used by cake decorators.
Telling Them Apart
Although all of these implements are properly called spatulas, you can differentiate between them based on use. Flippers and turners — called “grill spatulas” in commercial kitchens — are broad, to turn foods without breaking them, and made of heatproof materials. Bakers use flexible rubber or silicon spatulas to coax batters and doughs from their bowls, or stiffer versions as a mixing implement similar to a wooden spoon. Cake decorators’ spatulas are often referred to as palette knives, because they resemble a larger version of that painter’s tool and they’re used similarly when applying frosting.
References and ResourcesOn Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals; Sarah Labensky, et al.
Online Etymology Dictionary: Spatula