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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. – chasly from UK Nov 6 '15 at 2:56
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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 '15 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 '15 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 '16 at 2:40
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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 '15 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 '15 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...". – chasly from UK Nov 6 '15 at 14:27
  • 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. – Apologize and reinstate Monica Oct 16 '18 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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"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 '18 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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    Hell, Evelyn. 'Answers' on ELU must be specific to the original question, not related discussion. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 31 '16 at 23:04
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    I think Edwin meant to say "Hello," Evelyn. If he were from Texas and not the UK, I might not feel so sure about his wording. – Sven Yargs Feb 1 '16 at 0:06
  • @SvenYargs. A Texan would say "heck". A New Yorker would say something far less appropriate than hell... – jimm101 Feb 1 '16 at 1:24
  • And with that, welcome to EL&U :) . – Lawrence Feb 1 '16 at 1:25
  • @jimm101: I'm from Texas, which is why I felt free to characterize the word choice of my compeers. But you're certainly correct in pointing out that "heck" Texans form a sizable contingent in the Lone Star State, too. Heck, I been one o' them myself from time to time. – Sven Yargs Feb 1 '16 at 4:16

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