In the comments in Where is the word "cutlery" in common usage this question came up with no obvious resolution. In British English today the word cutlery just refers to implements used for eating, such as knives, forks and spoons. However this is not the definition given in the OED (where the current entry still dates from 1893), nor is it the usage one can see using Google Books from the 19th century. What is the first usage of cutlery in its modern meaning?

If one needs more proof of the modern meaning, the Wikipedia article says "The major items of cutlery in the Western world are the knife, fork and spoon." and a web search will show no end of shops in the UK selling knives, forks and spoons as cutlery.

To try to hone in on a date, in 1939 cutlery apparently included spoons and forks even in the US. See this Google Books results. There is also a linguistic distinction between kitchen cutlery and table cutlery.

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    Unstated but suggested is that, in its origins, cutlery referred only to the implements that cut. Perhaps make that explicit?
    – bib
    Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 23:14
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    The most recent quotation in the on-line OED is 1837. But cutlerey is from the French 'coutellerie', which I am sure includes the full range of tableware implements, knives, forks, spoons etc. The British cutlery industry was established in Sheffield and the term 'master-cutler' came to designate the proprietor-craftsmen. My guess is that 'cutlery' has included forks and spoons for a very long time.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 23:30
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    @WS2: It certainly did not include forks when the word was borrowed from the French. From etymonline; cutlery (n.): mid-14c., from Old French coutelerie (13c., Modern French coutellerie) "cutting utensils," also "knife-making," from coutel "knife," from Latin cultellus (see cutlass). Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 0:15
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    – Marthaª
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 1:29
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    I've just been told that Americans, at least in Memphis, say 'flatware'
    – tony
    Commented Dec 19, 2016 at 2:13

2 Answers 2


The term cutlery embraced forks (but not, apparently, spoons) at least as early as 1766, when D. Fenning, J. Collyer and others report of the island of Borneo that

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 —A New System of Geography: or A General Description of the World

This understanding received judicial imprimatur in the case of Kirk against Nowill and Butler, King's Bench, Hilary Term 1786, where it is reported (and not gainsaid) that searchers appointed by the Company of Cutlers of the Lordship of Hallamshire to discover ‘deceitful and unworkmanly cutlery wares’, did

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And Thomas Martin, Civil Engineer, assisted by eminent professional mechanics and manufacturers, states in The Circle of the Mechanical Arts, 1813, that

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  • The flip side of the question, is when did it in common use exclude scissors, swords, shears and razors? I suspect it went hand in hand with the decline of cutlers of the old style, but since the word is still (though rarely) used in that sense, it is likely much harder to come up with an answer one could have a reasonable degree of certainty in.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 2:03
  • It is not clear to me that the word "fork" in these examples refers to table forks. At some point, possibly very recently, the word in British English came to mean eating utensils almost exclusively.
    – Simd
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 9:43
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    @Anush I suppose haying-forks and dungforks could be meant, but I think it unlikely. These were generally of wood in the middle ages; even forks with metal tines would have been smith's work, cast or wrought iron rather than steel, which was very expensive until the industrial revolution was in full swing. Tableforks, however, would have fallen naturally into the cutler's repertory, since they were made in matched sets with tableknives. Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 11:41
  • I think some evidence is needed for this. askandyaboutclothes.com/lifestyle/… is interesting as is cutleryorigins.webs.com . Your 18th century quotations seem too early to refer to table forks as we would recognise them. I particularly like " Many British clergymen were vehemently opposed to forks; they believed that only human fingers were worthy of touching God’s food.". Another small point, the middle ages ended around 1500 so that is not the time we are talking about.
    – Simd
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 13:13
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    @Anush Evidence of what? That table forks were in common use in the 18th century? "Knives and Forks" are mentioned as ordinary table appliances in Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), and Arbuthnot's History of John Bull (1712). Dodsley's "The Footman" (1732) states "To lay the Cloth I now prepare, With Uniformity and Care; In Order Knives and Forks are laid, With folded Napkins, Salt, and Bread: Side-boards glittering too appear, With Plate, and Glass, and China-ware." Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 14:18

I cannot remember when the word cutlery did not include spoons and forks, but the usage seems to have become common during my lifetime. My Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 8th Edition (copyright 1980) lists the meaning as:

1: edged or cutting tools; specif. implements for cutting and eating food.
2: the business of a cutler.

My OED Compact Edition (1928) lists only edged and cutting tools as included in its definition.

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    I believe the word cutlery included forks and spoons in England long before it did in the US. And the online OED says it hasn't updated its entry since 1893, so it's possible the current usage in England dates back to the beginning of this century. Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 0:25

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