If you were born in the past century and respect a good breakfast, you’ve probably heard of a donut. It’s that sweet, circular pastry with a hole in the middle and perhaps a beautiful layer of frosting, right? Well, despite it being a passable play in Scrabble, and despite the deciders at Merriam-Webster having thrown up their hands and entered it into their dictionaries, the donut should not exist. That cakey, fried tube of dough should be called a doughnut. So why can’t anyone spell it right?
On Twitter recently, user @Molly_Jackson took a poll: doughnut or donut.
After nearly 6,000 votes, it was clear. The overwhelming majority of people are making this breakfast mistake.
So The Daily Meal did a deep dive into the doughnut’s etymology to find some answers. It turns out that, yes, the word doughnut came to be because the treat is made using dough. So why is everyone so resistant to those extra three letters? Is it because people are lazy? Should you just blame Dunkin’ (who, by the way, ditched the “Donuts” anyway)?
As it turns out, this shortened spelling emerged long before Dunkin’ opened its doors. The first known printed use of donut occurred in 1900 in the book “Peck’s Bad Boy and His Pa” by George W. Peck. “Pa said he guessed he hadn’t got much appetite, and he would just drink a cup of coffee and eat a donut,” one character in the book says.
But America apparently did have an appetite for the five-letter donut. According to some sources, the simplified spelling was used intentionally to make the word easier for foreigners to pronounce (not that Americans are so great at pronunciation). This was expected to boost sales of automated doughnut-making machines. Which, when you think about it, isn’t so wild a concept. Would you buy a laser pointer if it were called a “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation pointer”?
Clearly, the spelling caught on enough to start ruffling feathers. In 1929, a Los Angeles Times columnist railed against poor spelling and the decline of “doughnut,” claiming he “can’t swallow the ‘wel-dun donut’ nor the ever so ‘gud bred.’” But not everyone saw it as a problem — in coverage of the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, even The New York Times seemed to use the two spellings interchangably.
But even after that point, the shorter spelling was rarely published. If you enter both spellings into Google’s Ngram viewer, you’ll see that it wasn’t until after 1950 that there was a significant use of donut and not until 1960 that the use of that version really began to grow. So why the spike in spelling errors?
It’s impossible to say for sure who is to blame, of course. But Dunkin’ Donuts was founded around 1950. And in 1955, the store grew into a franchise. At this point, America runs on Dunkin’. You do the math.
The one thing that is for sure is that you can blame Americans for this issue — and that’s according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Before this careless contraction infiltrated the Queen’s English, it was probably just something Americans did that other countries thought was weird.