Filling holes in the “doughnut” vs. “donut” debate

Jared takes a look at the linguistic background behind the great debate.

Welcome back, folks. If you’ve been with us for the previous two weeks, you’ve joined me in tackling some of downtown Columbia’s newest food rivalries: Hot Box vs. Insomnia and Pizza Tree vs. Shakespeare’s. But today, another downtown conflict is inside the ring: “doughnuts” vs. “donuts.”

Harold’s Doughnuts and Strange Donuts both opened their doors downtown in early 2015. To an amateur, it may appear as though both shops sell the same product. But on closer inspection, one finds holes in that analysis. You see, Harold’s sells “doughnuts,” while Strange sells “donuts.”

I’m not sugarcoating things here, people. Locate your long johns. Find your fritters. Collect your crullers. The showdown between “d-o-u-g-h-nut” and “d-o-nut” begins – right now.

I needed to get to the creme-filled center of this sweet, sweet debate, so first I talked to an expert. Matthew Gordon is an associate professor of English, and he studies linguistics – specifically, variations in American English dialects. He explained why there are two different spellings in the first place.

“The ‘d-o-u-g-h’ spelling is the original one, reflecting the original meaning of the word – a nut, or a little ball, made out of dough,” Gordon says. “It was later spelled just ‘d-o.’ And it makes sense, because the spelling of ‘dough’ has too many letters for its pronunciation. There’s a tendency to spell things in a more sensible way to reflect the pronunciation.”

Those letters weren’t always silent, Gordon told me. At one time, the “gh” on the end of “dough” was a unique consonant sound that was actually vocalized.

“In a very early form of English, that word would’ve been pronounced like ‘dokh’ – that kind of German ‘ch’ sound,” Gordon says. “That died out 500-600 years ago, so it hasn’t been pronounced that way for a long time. The problem is that spelling is conservative. So the “gh” in spelling was preserved long after it ceased to have any connection to pronunciation.”

So why would Harold’s, a relatively new store, intentionally use an older spelling? To get to the golden-brown bottom of this, I spoke with Michael Urban, the owner of Harold’s Doughnuts. He explained to me that the shop’s namesake is his grandfather Harold, who was himself an entrepreneur. And the doughnuts were originally based on a recipe from a cookbook that belonged to Harold’s wife, Urban’s grandmother. Urban says the spelling of “doughnut” he chose reflected the character of the shop itself.

“We bake everything from scratch; we’re rooted in tradition, if you will,” Urban says. “The traditional spelling of the word is ‘doughnut.’ In looking at who we are, and our values, and what we stand for today and what we hope to continue to stand for in the future, it just felt like the traditional way of spelling it made a lot of sense.”

So there you have it, folks – the difference between “doughnut” and “donut.” I hope that sprinkle of knowledge for the day didn’t fry your brain or make your eyes glaze over, and that you’ll join us next time as we take another half-baked look further into Columbia’s downtown.

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