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Unpalatable: 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 is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday May 16th 2013, 4:30 AM
Comment by: Peter C. (Santa Barbara, CA)
And some, ahem, philistines suggest we reduce all that richness down to one simple spelling (e.g. palet). What a loss that would be!
Thursday May 16th 2013, 4:41 AM
Comment by: Elle
Nice article!

"Achilles' armpit" made me laugh.
Thursday May 16th 2013, 9:47 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
How about "paillette?" Also a "smooth, hard, flat surface," these are sort of like spangles--shiny, decorative bits that get applied to clothing. Or, perhaps, its "i" removes it too far from this group...
Thursday May 16th 2013, 11:46 AM
Comment by: William D. (Sydney Canada)
Well informed and entertaining--good stickhandling.
Thursday May 16th 2013, 12:07 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
Many thanks for the nuance of the word "palette".I like the reference of ;French beret because I am French.
I don't forget the underarm of the wearer; or the "armpit".
Thursday May 16th 2013, 1:35 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Thanks - I needed that ... very helpful! Spelling hint: you can remember that a palette is an artist's little friend.

The Happy Quibbler
Thursday May 16th 2013, 3:17 PM
Comment by: Laura C.
Great article! Thanks. I just discovered an app called Word Wit that features "words and their evil twins" like palate and palette, accept and except, averse and adverse. Glad English is my native tongue!

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