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I'm genuinely confused about this because at first I thought a spatula was a cooking tool resembling a flat pallet attached at an angle to the handle that could be used for activities such as flipping eggs.

Then I noticed in stores what I thought was a spatula was labelled "flipper" and a "spatula" was something else that was flat in profile as having the handle parallel with the head of the device.

Now people are telling me there's no such thing as a flipper in terms of a cooking device.

I believe the terminology may vary by region. What is a flipper and what is a spatula and in which parts of the world do the definitions apply? For completeness sake, do some people call one of the devices a "turner" (I've never heard this before @choster used it)?

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Surely you mean a turner, not a flipper. Flipper is a dolphin. –  choster Apr 3 at 21:50
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@choster Negative. I have others comment the same and I do not mistakenly use the word flipper instead of turner. –  Celeritas Apr 3 at 21:56
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I usually call those a flipper myself. I think turner and spatula are more common/proper names for the same thing. See my answer below. –  Bradd Szonye Apr 3 at 22:10
    
Spatula City –  KitFox Apr 4 at 18:13
    
There's some evidence for “pancake flipper” meaning a turner in Google Books, but it’s only about 1/10th as common as “pancake turner,” so it’s not surprising that many people haven’t heard it before. I updated my answer with a link to the Ngram. –  Bradd Szonye Apr 4 at 23:13

4 Answers 4

A spatula in cooking is a flat object often made of rubber or metal meant to spread, mix or lift food.

A flipper or turner are flat objects usually made of metal or plastic designed to slide under a piece of food in a pan or on a grill. The broad flat blade facilities easy turning of the food. (Flipper sounds more like a colloquialism for turner to me. Also Pancake Flipper or Burger Flipper is frequently used to refer to the person doing the flipping - that is a short-order cook …)

Pancake Turner

Rubber (or silicone) spatulas with handles are also called scrapers. (With no handle they are called bowl scrapers.)

Small metal spatulas are often called icing knives.

Rubber spatulas Icing Knife

A spatula can refer to any tool with a small flat blade. It is derived directly from Latin, having come to English in the 1520s as a medical instrument. Spatula the diminutive of the Latin spatha meaning a "broad, flat tool or weapon," from Greek spathe "broad flat blade (used by weavers)".

Update Based upon my review of multiple cook's tool resellers (Williams-Sonoma, etc.) it seems that turners are frequently called spatulas. And, rubber scrapers are also called spatulas. But, a rubber scraper cannot be called a turner, and vice-versa.

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I've seen that distinction before too – but also the reverse. For example, Wikipedia says that your “spatula” is properly called a scraper, while the “turner” is properly a spatula. It seems that they're all just different varieties of spatula. –  Bradd Szonye Apr 3 at 22:08
    
@Bradd that is true. A spatula always has a flat blade like object on its end. But, most chefs distinguish the two as above. –  David M Apr 3 at 22:15
    
I'm not convinced – for example, another answer insists that a real chef would only use spatula for a palette knife. I think people have strong opinions on spatulas but there's no clear consensus. –  Bradd Szonye Apr 3 at 23:01
    
@BraddSzonye Now that I'm not on my phone, I gave a better answer. –  David M Apr 3 at 23:20
    
Do you have something to back up the use of flipper? The link you gave only defines "turner" or "food turner". I've only ever heard flipper used to mean fin. –  starsplusplus Apr 4 at 11:19

Interestingly, if you search for images of spatula in Google, about half of the images are for the device used to turn over pancakes, and half are for the device used to scrape food from a jar.

A similar search for turner results in images for the artist. However, a sidebar offers images for kitchen turner which leads to pictures of the pancake reorienting machine. Delving into these images offer a variety of terms, such as slotted turner, griddle turner and pancake turner.

A search for turner on the Amazon shopping site offers a range of griddle or pan related utensils. A similar search for spatula yields the mixed bag.

A search in Google images or Amazon for flipper yields dolphins (the mammals not the fish).

In sum, if the interweb is to be believed, spatula means either an inversion device or a scraping device, and turner means an inversion device.

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Well that settles it. The latter is a spatula and the former is a pancake reorienting machine! –  Two-Bit Alchemist Apr 4 at 1:53
    
although I might go for device rather than machine –  Jim Apr 4 at 4:29
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@Jim The lever and the wedge are both classified as machines... So I guess if you didn't mind explaining that every time someone asked, you could go with "machine." –  user867 Apr 4 at 4:32
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A glorified Google search does not an answer make. –  Steven Penny Apr 4 at 4:41
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@StevenPenny- I think quite often it actually does. –  Jim Apr 4 at 4:42

The English usage of these terms and the kitchen's (more exacting) usage of these terms differ, slightly. You may get a more nuanced response on our sister site, http://cooking.stackexchange.com.

Some pictures may help. Please see http://cooking.stackexchange.com/q/18682. In my dialect of AE, I had never heard of "flipper," but only a "pancake turner" or a "spatula." (Of course, they were used for turning more than pancakes.)

In the kitchen's more specific usage, the spatula is the long, thin blade used to spread icing on a cake. (Also to pry open watch backs.) See http://cooking.stackexchange.com/q/22277.

In my AE usage, a pancake turner is called a spatula. And many companies have marketed flexible scrapers as spatulas as well.

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Same here (New England), we call a pancake turner a spatula. I'd never heard flipper, but I'd know what it meant. We usually use scraper or rubber spatula to describe the other thing, and frosting knife to describe the watch back opener. –  KitFox Apr 4 at 13:03
    
I held up a rubber scraper and a pancake turner and asked my teenager daughter (raised in the South to Northern parents) to name them. She called them a spatula and a flipper. I was quite surprised that word she proffered for the latter was one that I had not heard before this question was posed. –  rajah9 Apr 4 at 17:01

Spatula refers to several kitchen* tools used for lifting, spreading, scraping, and sometimes mixing. They all have broad, flat, flexible blades, for which they are named. There are three major varieties:

  • Turners are used to lift and flip food like pancakes and filets. Some people call these flippers, but it’s comparatively rare and not well documented. Fish slice is the British English name for a common kind of turner.

  • Palette knives are used for spreading, such as frosting a cake. They’re also called frosting spatulas and (in Canada) levelers.

  • Scrapers are used to empty containers and clean surfaces. Some scrapers are also useful for mixing, folding, or stirring ingredients.

For some reason, spatulas inspire a kind of nomenclature prescriptivism. Some people insist that spatula properly refers only to scrapers, and that it’s an error to use the word for a turner. Other people insist that palette knives are the only true spatulas. One thing is certain:

You can call any of these things a spatula, and everyone will know what you mean, but a bunch of people will think you are calling it the wrong thing.


* and laboratory

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No criticism, Bradd, but I wanted to let the question mellow for a day before upvoting any answer. I have not heard "fish slices." I am not the baking authority, but I thought of the spatula for spreading the base layer of frosting or fondant and the palette knives for applying the decorative aspects. –  rajah9 Apr 4 at 16:57
    
+1 for "fish slice" –  James Apr 4 at 18:59
    
Expanded my answer a bit, and touched on the “one true spatula” debate. –  Bradd Szonye Apr 4 at 23:09

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