Q&A: Palate vs palette vs pallet

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're having a palette like it is…

Q: Hey AWC, I’ve had a bad week.

A: What happened?

Q: Well, the other day I decided I’d paint a picture, so I ordered a palette to put all my paints on, but what arrived was a timber pallet like the type forklifts move about warehouses.

A: Gosh, that’s quite the misunderstanding.

Q: I know, right! And then last night I was finally showing off my actual palette (thumb hole and everything) while out to dinner. The waiter asked if we’d like a palate cleanser before our next course.

A: That sounds nice.

Q: Sure, but he then got a hose and washed away all the paints on my palette!

A: Wait, a hose, in the restaurant? And why did you have paint on—- Waaaait a minute. Are you just making up these convenient scenarios to introduce today’s topic?

Q: Maybe.

A: A topic that may involve the confusion of “palettes”, “pallets” and “palates” all occupying the same universe?

Q: Exactly! It’s ridiculous – there are just way too many types. Help!

A: Okay, so you’re right that people often confuse them. It’s probably best to start with “palate” – it’s the oldest word and the one that you find inside your body.

Q: Actually, my uncle once got a palette stuck inside his—

A: Please don’t finish that sentence. Well, let’s just say that a “palate” SHOULD be found inside the body – in particular, it came to English in the 1300s from the Latin “palatum” for “roof of the mouth” – the fleshy part between the oral and nasal cavity.

Q: So is it related to eating?

A: Not always. It’s simply a part of the anatomy found inside the mouth, made up of a hard and soft palate. It’s also related to the sounds we make – for example, a “j” sound is made by the tongue hitting the hard palate.

Q: But what about people who say they have a “discerning palate”?

A: Okay, it is also the name given to your sense of taste. That’s why restaurants might “cater to all types of palate” – they’re talking about all flavour preferences.

Q: And “palate cleansing”?

A: Well, it certainly shouldn’t involve a waiter hosing down art supplies. Rather, a palate cleanser is something neutral to remove previous flavours, so you’re ready for the next thing. A common example is pickled ginger when eating sushi, or perhaps a citrus sorbet.

Q: And if you have a “cleft palate”?

A: Many babies are born with this – where the palate has been split (“cleft”, from “cleave”). As a result, they may have trouble making sounds that use the palate. It’s also seen in cleft lips and some consider it attractive in a cleft chin.

Q: Oh, a chin dimple… like John Travolta?

A: That’s the one. So a “palate” is related either to a part of your mouth or your sense of taste. For that reason, simply remember the spelling of a “PLATE” of food and add an A to get PALATE.

Q: Nice. So now what about “palette” and “pallet”?

A: The first meaning of “pallet” is as a straw bed or mattress – from the French “paillete” meaning “bundle of straw”. It dates back to the 14th century and is still listed in dictionaries today.

Q: It’s no time to sleep – I have painting to do!

A: Then you’ll be wanting the Old French word “palete” – meaning spade or shovel. Not only did it give us the “pallet”: a rare flat wooden blade used as a tool by potters for shaping their wares, it also gave us the “palette”: “a flat, thin tablet, with a thumb hole at one end, used by an artist to lay and mix colours”. Sound familiar?

Q: Yes, that does!

A: “Palette” would much later (from the 1880s) be used simply for the selection of colours that an artist might use. For example, “She used a warm palette to create the sunset”.

Q: So you mention the flat blade being a “pallet” in pottery? Is that the same spelling as the knife that painters like Anh Do use?

A: No, that’s a “palette knife” and was first recorded in the 1750s – a metal blade of various shapes, often used by chefs, bricklayers or painters.

Q: And it should be spelt the same as the artist’s paint holder?

A: Yes, “palette knife” is the most common and recommended spelling. However, it is sometimes seen as “pallet knife” (especially if the paint tray word is also spelt this way) or even “palet knife”. However, it’s best to avoid those spellings.

Q: Well, as per my original scenario, the only “pallet” I’m familiar with is the forklift variety.

A: Ah yeah – these are defined by Macquarie Dictionary as “movable platforms on which goods are placed for storage or transportation”. Also good for repurposing into other items of furniture!

Q: We love a good pallet coffee table.

A: Or a bed base. Or a planter box. Outdoor furniture…

Q: So, you gave me the “plate = palate” tip to get that one right. Any tips for remembering which is which with these others?

A: Well, “palette” and “baguette” both end in ETTE. So just imagine one of the classic French painters munching on a baguette while holding his palette of paints and palette knife.

Q: Nice! And French people are quite PALE too – the first four letters!

A: Haha, yes that also works! As for “pallet”, you can make ALL sorts of things out of a pALLet!

Q: I’m so glad we cleared up this confusion. Never again will I store paints on the roof of my mouth or try to forklift a straw mattress with a small knife…

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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