A plateful of similar words

The artists were being praised for their technique in which, the article said, they “use only pallet knives, not brushes.” The conference attendees were told that “it’s not too early to start whetting your palette for” the food expected to be served. And the article talked about a shipment of “wooden palates infested with the Asian long-horned beetle.”

Possibly wrong, wrong, and ouch.

Those three words, “pallet,” “palette,” and “palate,” all have at their hearts the sense of a “plate,” or a relatively smooth, flat, hard surface. Confuse them, however, and your readers can get the wrong idea.

Of these, “pallet” has the most uses. Among other things, a “pallet” can be a platform onto which goods are stacked for storage or moving; a straw or other rough bed for sleeping; an armored headpiece; a small cup used in bloodletting (possibly to cure someone who forgot to wear his “pallet”); or a flat-bladed instrument, similar to a spatula. It was a wooden “pallet” that was infested with Asian long-horned beetles.

A “palette” usually has to do with colors. It is the flat board, often with a thumbhole, on which an artist mixes paints to get the colors just so. It’s also a range of colors, as in “the house was decorated in a palette of pastels and earth tones.” More broadly, a “palette” can be a spectrum of almost anything. Since the “ette” ending looks French, and the stereotyped image of an artist holding a “palette” also includes a French beret, perhaps that will help you keep them straight.

Now, since a “pallet” is a flat-bladed instrument, and a flat-bladed instrument is what artists use to mix their paints, you might think that the artists above were using “pallet knives.” But that would be underestimating the proclivity of English speakers to make new words because they sound right. The thin blade that artists use is most often called a “palette knife,” because it’s used with a “palette.” The dictionaries that include “pallet knives” usually reserve that spelling for pastry spatulas.

Which brings us to food. The “palate” is the soft plate on the roof of your mouth, or your taste for things, as in “she had no palate for crustaceans.” The “palate” was thought to be the center of taste in the days before the tongue was given its due. And that would make a wooden “palate” riddled with insects rather distasteful. Think, if you will, that the “palate” is where what you “ate” might stick.

But wait! There’s yet another piece to throw on the pile. A “pallette” is the plate of armor that protects the underarm of the wearer. “Pallette” may have arisen from a misspelling of “pallet,” the armor plating mentioned above. So if you misspell the artist’s board, you have created an Achilles’ armpit for some poor knight.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,