Flash Card: Making Homophones More Palatable

I like to think I have a sophisticated palate, a refined appreciation of the finer food and drink that fiddle fabulously on the roof of my mouth, or as Merriam-Webster.com defines "palate," "the roof of the mouth separating the mouth from the nasal cavity." That would be the primary, anatomical definition. The secondary, more appetizing definitions are "a usually intellectual taste or liking" and "the sense of taste."

It won't surprise you to find that I equate "palate" with "palette," the former evoking the culinary creativity of, say, Munch Drunk Love mastermind Matt Barr, my favorite molecular gastronomist. Matt is truly a mad scientist in the kitchen, but it's his artistry therein I think of when I think of "palate" and "palette."

A "palette," of course, is primarily "a thin oval or rectangular board or tablet that a painter holds and mixes pigments" and secondarily "the set of colors put on the palette" and "a particular range, quality or use of color" or "comparable range, quality or use of available elements." Ever-reliable, M-W.com makes my point for me with the example "a palette of flavors."

Then there's "pallet." I do believe I have used both "palate" and "palette" at some point in my many years as a copywriter. But "pallet?" Never. Which is why I had to look up the spelling. Whereas "palate" and "palette" both connote the aesthetic, "pallet" generally leads a much more humble existence.

A pallet is what you see shoppers at Costco loading up with croissants, tea and toilet paper (at least the owners of independent dining establishments). I vaguely recall using one at Ikea when we acquired Benno, Helmer and yes, Dave, back in the spring of 2011. According to M-W.com, a "pallet" is "a portable platform for handling, storing or moving materials and packages (as in warehouses, factories or vehicles)."

I do believe I have used both "palate" and "palette" at some point in my many years as a copywriter. But "pallet?" Never. Which is why I had to look up the spelling."

This definition of "pallet" also encompasses "a wooden flat-bladed instrument." Then there's "a lever or surface in a timepiece that receives an impulse from the escapement wheel and imparts motion to a balance or pendulum." That doesn't come up much, but I'm glad it just did if only for the phrase "an impulse from the escapement wheel" (an excellent prog-rock album title).

And that's not all! A "pallet" is also "a straw-filled tick or mattress" or "a small, hard or temporary bed." You likely wouldn't want to lie down on either, but Seabiscuit, for one, may have found the first option plenty cozy (and its contents a tasty snack).

"Palette" and "pallet" share an etymological root; "palate" is the odd word out. Wikipedia says of "palate": "The English synonyms palate and palatum, and also the related adjective palatine (as in palatine bone), are all from the Latin palatum via Old French palat, words which, like their English derivatives, refer to the 'roof of the mouth.'"

As for "palette," DailyWritingTips.com contributor Mark Nichol expounds: "The name of this handy paint-mixing surface comes from French (certainement!) — the original meaning was 'blade' or 'small shovel' — and ultimately derives from the Latin term pala, meaning 'shoulder blade' or 'spade.'"

As for "pallet," the helpful Mr. Nichol goes on to illuminate: "In heraldry, pallet denotes a vertical band of color. [This meaning derives] from the 'blade' sense of palette." He further points out that the aforementioned meanings of pallet likewise derive from the "blade" sense of "palette," with one exception: "The same word used to refer to a crude bed or mattress ... is unrelated."

Before we emerge from this particular rabbit hole, I feel compelled to return to the pallet that is a "wooden flat-bladed instrument" and share with you a comment on Mr. Nichol's article; remarked one Nann Dunne: "Though not shown in MWC [Merriam-Webster's Collegiate] dictionary, pallet is also used with pallet knife (also called palette knife) – a round-ended spatula with a thin flexible blade used by artists for mixing, applying, and scraping off paint. Confusing, but I believe both spellings are accepted."

It appears that variations of this spatula-like implement are used not only by painters but potters and pastry chefs, among others. And the name of this tool can apparently be rendered either "pallet knife" or "palette knife." Confusing, yes, but the interchangeability does provide another illustration of the etymological bond uniting "pallet" and "palette." (RE: pastry chefs, who've been known to frost a cake with one of these babies, I can't help but return to my equation of "palette" and "palate," however etymologically irrelevant.)

At this point you'd be well within your rights to sputter, "FINE, but how do you remember which of these homophones is which?" For this, I direct you to the woman I have accepted as my personal savior, Grammar Girl. She has already trod this territory and trod it well.

PALATE: "Remember that 'palate' ... ends with 'ate' — it's all about food."
PALLET: " ... think of the two l's as a little rectangular bed ... in the middle of the word."
PALETTE: "There are many famous French painters (e.g., Monet, Renoir, Cezanne) and the '-ette' ending on 'palette' is common in French." Of course if Picasso and Van Gogh are the only painters you can think of, you're out of luck with that one.

Suffering from homophonia? Let me know on the EE Facebook page; I'll see what I can do.