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I was surprised to discover that what we Brits call cutlery is called silverware in the U.S.

To me the term 'silverware' refers to items that are made of pure silver or, at the very least, are silver-plated. Eating implements made of other materials are not silverware but cutlery in Britain, for example: Stainless-steel cutlery, plastic cutlery, gold cutlery etc.

What really surprised me was that it seems the term 'plastic silverware' is commonly used.

Examples

Thanksgiving morning volunteers were slicing turkey and folding plastic silverware into dinner-size napkins. Visions of Charity: Volunteer Workers and Moral Community By Rebecca Anne Allahyari

He took out a long paper tablecloth, paper plates, plastic silverware, party napkins The Wanderers By Richard Price

Research

I searched online for 'plastic silverware' but the results weren't conclusive from my point of view. Sometimes I arrived at a page that showed white plastic items but on the page itself they would not be described as 'silverware'. Other links led me to pages such as this one New 48 SILVER Plastic CUTLERY Wedding Party Silverware Forks Spoons Knifes 2 Box where the product is being described as 'silver silverware' as far as I can understand but the words plastic and cutlery also appear. My eyes tell me that the product has a silvery finish but with regard to the name, every single base is covered leaving me uncertain as to which if any is the general term.

Question

Looking at the examples that I provided, do US readers understand them to refer to the white plastic items that are often used on informal occasions or does the term imply that the plastic is coated in some way to make it appear silvery as in the product example I showed?

Rider

As an afterthought, it occurs to me to ask whether solid gold cutlery would be called 'gold silverware'.

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    I see someone has voted to close on account of my not researching the question. I specifically want to know how a North American reader would interpret those example sentences. I fail to see how I can research that without asking real people. Nov 6, 2015 at 2:56
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    'Cutlery' originally meant "the art or practice of knife making". However, 'cutlers' branched out into making other, non-cutting eating tools a long time before 'cutlery' was used as a generic name for their products. I don't think there's any reason to restrict the term to sharp-edged implements. In 18th Century Sheffield, there were craftsmen making nothing but forks who were proud to be called cutlers.
    – JHCL
    Nov 6, 2015 at 9:41
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    @WS2 - In the US the cabinet full of trophies would be referred to as "trophies". This would include such things as goblets, statuettes, and small plaques.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 6, 2015 at 18:01
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    @WS2: A common U.S. slang term for sports trophies, etc., is hardware. A Google search of ESPN.com yields about three dozen unique matches for hardware, almost all of them in this sense. By the way, U.S. households that have actual silver or silver-plated cutlery may reserve those utensils for special occasions and use nonsilver cutlery for everyday use. The silver silverware may then be termed the good silverware.
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 6, 2015 at 18:11
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    Cutlery is also used in the US, as is flatware, but silverware is more common. In all three cases, the word can refer to plastic implements - silverware is not necessarily silver or silver-plated. In the US it is typically stainless steel, but it can be gold, gold-plated, silver, silver-plated, plastic, or even wood or paper. How one chooses to call the plastic versions is not so important... This is no different from referring to white piano keys as "ivories" - most are not made of ivory today.
    – Drew
    Feb 1, 2016 at 2:40

7 Answers 7

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I am a U.S. speaker. When I hear the term silverware, I picture forks, knives, and spoons. They can be made of metal (including – but not necessarily – silver) or plastic.

Yes, it's an odd word. A Wikipedia article on cutlery explains it quite accurately:

Cutlery is more usually known as silverware or flatware in the United States, where cutlery usually means knives and related cutting instruments. Although the term silverware is used irrespective of the material composition of the utensils, the term tableware has come into use to avoid the implication that they are made of silver.

As other commenters have said, terms like cutlery and flatware are sometimes used when the material isn't silver, and the speaker wants to emphasize that. Sometimes tableware is used as a hypernym. But silverware is the most common term I hear in everyday speech – even when referring to plastic forks and spoons. You might even hear disposable silverware.


General reference? I don't think so. You're asking a fair question about day-to-day usage, essentially asking, "Is this really true?" I can see why someone on the other side of the pond would be a bit incredulous at the oxymoron (plastic silverware). Moreover, how are general reference sources supposed to confirm or refute something you're finding initially surprising?

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    Hmm. Tableware in BrE is more likely to include everything on the table except cutlery.
    – Andrew Leach
    Nov 6, 2015 at 7:42
  • @Josh - Those links affirm the existance of the phrase, but the O.P. has already acknowledged that the phrase exists. I think the question here is more about how odd (or natural) it sounds to the American ear. As an afterthought, if I heard the term gold silverware, I might imagine that I'm eating at King Midas' house, but more likely that I'm eating using gold-colored plastic.
    – J.R.
    Nov 6, 2015 at 8:02
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    @Josh61 - "What do you visualize..." is not a matter of opinion--it is a matter of fact. An opinion would be, "What is the best word for eating implements...". Nov 6, 2015 at 14:27
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    I would add that "plastic silverware" is not an oxymoron to an American, because "silverware" does not exclusively mean "cutlery made of silver" in American English. I am continually amused by those who have a hard time understanding that every language has regional differences.
    – user91988
    Oct 16, 2018 at 15:50
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I've lived in several parts of the North America—Texas, Alberta, Maryland, Washington D.C., New York, and California—and in all of those places, if memory serves me correctly, the most common descriptive term for plastic forks, knives, and spoons is plastic utensils. A typical instance of this usage appears in this product page entry from BOX Partners; another appears in this product page from Paper Mart.

I would understand the phrases "plastic silverware," "plastic cutlery," and "plastic flatware" to refer to the same items that "plastic utensils" does. And indeed the latter two terms clearly include spoons and forks as well as knives, as this search page from Global Sources and this one from WebrestaurantStore make clear. Undoubtedly some North Americans use one or another of those terms in preference to "plastic utensils."

Evidently, "plastic tableware" is a broader term, referring to plastic dishes as well as plastic utensils, as in this product page from Stumps Party.

For a lark, I generated a Google Ngram chart matching the frequencies in print of "plastic silverware" (blue line) versus "plastic cutlery" (red line) versus "plastic utensils" (green line) versus "plastic flatware (yellow line) versus "plastic tableware" (teal line) from the corpus American English for the period 1940–2005. Here's the chart that appeared:

Of course, this chart doesn't tell us anything about what people mean when they use these various phrases, but it does indicate that "plastic utensils" is significantly more common than any of the other four phrases in American publications.


With regard to whether the color and the sheen of the plastic utensils have any bearing on the terminology that everyday U.S. English speakers use in referring to these items, I doubt that those characteristics are relevant. As an afterthought, however, I checked to see how various sellers refer to quasi-metallic gold-colored plastic utensils—and I found at least one major vendor (Amazon) that denominates them with the doubly oxymoronic phrase "gold plastic silverware." So the actual situation in U.S. marketing patois is even more ridiculous than chasly from UK imagined.

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I was surprised to discover that what we Brits call cutlery is called silverware in the U.S.

As a time traveller from the 15th century, I was surprised to discover that what you of the now "United" Kingdom call cutlery now includes forks and spoons! Ifaith!

From your own OED:

cutler, n.

Etymology: < French coutelier < Latin type cultellārius, < cultellus, Old French coutel knife.

One who makes, deals in, or repairs knives and similar cutting utensils.

c1430 J. Lydgate Horse, Goose & Sheep 130 Dagars wrought by the cutlers.

c1460 (▸?c1400) Tale of Beryn l. 2297 The Cotelere..þat made þe same knyff.

cutlery, n.

Etymology: < Old French coutelerie (modern French coutellerie ) cutler's art, cutlery, < coutelier cutler n.: see -ery suffix.(Show Less)

a. The art or trade of the cutler.

c1449 R. Pecock Repressor (1860) 50 Sporiorie and Cutellerie entermeeneden and enterfereden with goldsmyth craft..The al hool craft of cutleri. [The craft of spurmaking and the art or trade of the cutler overlaps with, and influences, the craft of the goldsmith.. The entire craft of knife making.]

b. collective. Articles made or sold by cutlers, as knives, scissors, etc. Also attributive.

1624 in Harper's Mag. (1884) June 72/2 The makers of knives, sickles, shears, scissors, and other cutlery wares.

NB all these are edged utensils - then imagine my surprise at

Draft additions September 2016

knives, forks, spoons, etc., used for eating or serving food; a set of table utensils of this kind. In earlier examples, difficult to distinguish from sense b.

(I assure you that, for me, there is no difficulty! Cutlery cuts!)

1821 Imperial Mag. Aug. 772 Mr Underwood..supplied the immense quantity of cutlery, which amounted to 8,000 knives and 8,000 forks, 650 pairs of carvers [etc.]

It would seem that as the origins of "silverware" have been forgotten in the "New World", so in the "Old World" the origins of "cutlery" have been forgotten, and new meanings for both created!

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'Silver service', in the UK, refers to the waiting on tables in a situation where food is brought to the tables and served from hand held plates, served on to the customer's plate by means of cutlery. The cutlery does not have to be silver.

This is anecdotal as I used to be employed, part-time, at a Heathrow hotel, serving banquets in the evening after my own daytime employment. This was in the 1980s. (Good money ; fun job ; only spilt the stuff once - mint sauce all down the back of a lady's white frock.)

The term is recognised by Wikipedia, but Wikipedia suggest that it is to some extent out-moded in favour of service à l'anglaise ("English service").

Thus, even in the UK, 'silver' implies cutlery. We used to refer, at home in the 1950s and 1960s, to 'the silver' even if the cutlery was not, actually, silver. The 'silver' drawer was the cutlery drawer.

The NGram for BrE 'silverware' indicates usage has increased - markedly - in the 21st century.

So, in the UK, traditionally, 'plastic silverware' would mean cutlery made of plastic.

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"Tableware" also includes the dishes, and some references seem to suggest the dishes and not the cutlery. If exclusively in the US (Canada seems to reference "cutlery" more often), then "silverware" can be used ... but the proper term is "cutlery".

But if it's plastic, don't bus it! (Leave it at the table.)

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    Welcome to EL&U. Please note that this is a Q&A site, not a discussion forum, but your answer does not appear to address the original question. I strongly encourage you to take the site tour and review the help center for additional guidance.
    – choster
    Jun 5, 2018 at 18:25
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The term, "flatware," doesn't limit items to those that cut or slice ("cutlery"), and neglect those that scoop (spoons) or poke (forks), nor describe composition (stainless steel) or color (silver). Neither does it suggest other items that grace the table, as might "tableware." Flatware serves the purpose.

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    Hello, Evelyn. 'Answers' on ELU must be specific to the original question, not related discussion. Jan 31, 2016 at 23:04
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    There are other examples: plastic glasses (either to drink from or correct vision with), reality TV, paper tablecloth, etc.
    – tautophile
    Jun 6, 2018 at 3:11
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In the food and beverage business, plastic forks, spoons and knives are commonly called Go-Wear. This term has been used for decades by veteran F&B staff. Though doubtful many newbies are familiar with the term.

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    If possible, could you include some sources to back up your answer? I.e., could you include some evidence of the term "Go-Wear" being used?
    – Justin
    Jun 21, 2022 at 16:54
  • Should the spelling be "go-ware"?
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 22, 2022 at 1:37
  • @SvenYargs: That might be it, but I'm seeing more results on Google for to-go ware..
    – Justin
    Jun 22, 2022 at 5:34

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