To serve and hornswoggle.

Dear Word Detective: I recently visited Williamsburg,VA, where, while eating at a restaurant, I noticed that the fork only had three prongs. I made a mention of it to the waiter and they proceeded to tell me that I was eating with a “threek,” and that a fork had four prongs, a “took” had two prongs, and no civilized person would ever eat using a one-pronged fork, called “a stick.” The reasoning seems to make sense, but was this server correct? — David Thompson.

Oh boy, here we go again. Someday, when I am rich (ha) and have nothing better to do, I’m going to travel the world, visiting “historic” tourist attractions and asking innocent questions such as the one you posed. Then, when the waiter or “cowherd” or “blacksmith” feeds me a ridiculous fable, I’m going to smack the miscreant with a trout. I’m not sure why these places make sure they get the wigs and bustles just right, but think it’s perfectly fine to invent insane language lore.

fork08.pngSo no, the waiter was was dispensing pure, unvarnished flapdoodle. Incidentally, many of my favorite foods come on a stick. Mmmm, fishsicles!

The entire edifice of deceit foisted upon your innocent tourist soul by that duplicitous waiter rests on one feeble assumption: that the word “fork” has something to do with “four.” It doesn’t. “Fork” comes from the Old English “forca,” which in turn is rooted in the Latin “furca,” meaning “pitchfork.” In English, “fork” referred to pitchforks and similar agricultural implements until the 15th century. Use of the fork in England didn’t really become common until the 18th century (other parts of the world had adopted it earlier), the knife and spoon being the primary dining implements (along with the fingers) before then.

The number of tines on a dining fork has varied over the centuries, and although four-tined forks are most common today, three- or even two-tined variants (for dealing with pickles, shrimp, etc) are not uncommon. The terms “threek” and “took,” however, are almost certainly inventions of public-relations pixies of the sort lurking behind the scones, so to speak, at Williamsburg, and do not occur in any established dictionary. That doesn’t mean that no one ever uses the terms, just that not enough people do to make them “common.”

Two other “fork-like” implements do bear their own names. One is the “trident,” the three-tined spear carried by the Greek sea god Poseidon. The other is the “spork,” a cross between a spoon and a fork (essentially a spoon with three or four short tines at the tip). Sporks date back to the 19th century, and the name has been the subject of trademark litigation pretty much constantly since then, but we will probably never know who actually invented the gizmo.

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