This post is dedicated to Robyn and Daz
No longer merely a humble eating or cooking implement, the spoon also has its place in the world of those suffering from chronic illnesses as the Spoon Theory becomes more popular.
Perhaps this will affect the meaning of the word in the future. But here we shall deal more with the past and the origins of the word.
In Middle English we can find it in various forms, such as spon, spoun, spun, spones and occasionally even spoon. But things are not as clear cut as you might at first think. It was not used simply to refer to an eating tool. Consider this example from 1450, taken from A Treatise on Horses, a Late Middle English text by Anne Charlotte Svinhufvud;
Take a drie stikke of wyþi or of hasel & þwyte þer-on longe sponus
Take a stick of willow or of hazel and whittle to a long sliver
Here, the meaning is clearly nothing to do with its current counterpart! But it did also mean ‘spoon’ in the current sense in Middle English, as in this example from 1395, to be found in Chaucer’s Squire’s Prologue:
a ful long spoon That shal ete with a feend.
So the word had more than one meaning, and it seems likely that the one arose from the other. Spoons as tools for eating or cooking were made of wood, and may have originally just been seen as long slivers – perhaps the earliest ones were like long, flat spatulas. Their shape evolved, but the name for them had already become settled.
This theory gains even more weight when we see how the word was used in Old English. This quote comes from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Baedae Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum), which is thought to have been completed in 731:
Monige of ðam treówe ðæs hálgan Cristes mǽles spónas and sceafþan nimaþ
Many are used to chip small slivers from the wood of the holy cross
The other theory is that the meaning in common use today may have evolved from Old Norse sponn, which also meant spoon. However, the Old Norse word was very much like the Middle English word in that it meant ‘chip, splinter, sliver’ in addition to ‘spoon’, so it is very hard to say today whether the Old English word spon evolved the extra sense independently, or whether it was influenced by Old Norse. In any case, the Old Norse and Old English words are cognates, both coming from the Proto-Germanic root *spenu-, which may have meant “wooden chip/ splinter”.
This can be further traced back to Proto-Indo-European and the root *spe-, which would have meant ‘long flat piece of wood, splinter’. Possible cognates of this can be found in Greek. The word σπαθή [spathe] which in Modern Greek means ‘sword’, but used to be ‘spade’ is one, and another possibility is σφήνα [sfina], which means ‘wedge’. However, these possible connections are not universally accepted. If correct, it would make ‘spade’ a cognate of ‘spoon’!