The concept of the fork, or more specifically the table fork, as an implement for eating food is a relatively recent one: it appears to have developed in the Roman Empire, though there are some who feel it may have started earlier, perhaps in Ancient Greece. The use of the fork as an eating utensil did not become common in northern Europe until the eighteenth century and it was not common in North America until the nineteenth century.
The early Greek forks were fairly large with two tines that were used in the carving and serving of meat. By the seventh century CE, the royal courts of the Middle East were beginning to use forks at the table for dining. Sometime in the eleventh century, a Byzantine wife of a Doge of Venice brought forks to Italy. It was not, however, until the sixteenth century that forks began to be accepted in Italy as an implement used at the dining table.
During his travels in Italy in 1608, an Englishman named Thomas Coryate acquired some forks and brought them back to England. However, the English were not enamored with forks and considered them to be both effeminate and unnecessary:
“Why should a person need a fork when God had given him hands?”Two generations later, however, forks had become fashionable among the wealthy British and markers of social status and sophistication.
The word itself comes from the Latin “furca” which denotes a “two-pronged fork or stake” and has an unknown origin.
The oldest tool used in the preparation and consumption of food is the spoon. With regard to its etymology, the English word for spoon, “spon,” originally meant “chip of wood”. The Old Norse “spánn” resulted in the English words “spade” and “spoon” as well as the expression “spick and span”.
During the first century CE, the Romans were using two types of spoons: the ligula which had a pointed oval bowl and a handle ending in a decorative design, and the cochleare which was a smaller spoon with a rounded bowl and a pointed, slender handle. The ligula was used for soft foods and soups, and the cochleare was used for eating eggs and shellfish.
When tea was first introduced to the British in 1660, tea was rare and expensive. Thus, the cups in which it was served and the spoons used to measure it were relatively small. As tea became cheaper, and more affordable for the masses, the size of both the cups and the spoons increased. By 1730, the teaspoon had increased to 1/3 of a tablespoon.
Before 1700, spoons in Europe were carried as personal property. After 1700, place settings at the table became popular and thus a variety of different types of spoons emerged, including the coffee spoon, the dessert spoon, and the soup spoon. The original spoon for eating, a table spoon, had become tablespoon and it had become a serving spoon.
While knives were developed fairly early in human history for butchering dead animals and for killing other people, it was not until fairly recently that people designed knives specifically for use at the dining table. During the Middle Ages in Europe, people would carry their own knives which were narrow and had sharply pointed ends. These knives would be used for spearing food and then raising it to the mouth to eat.
The use of the knife at the dining table did pose some possible hazards, particularly when two dinner guests got into heated arguments. Thus, in 1669 King Louis XIV of France decreed that pointed knives were illegal and ordered that all knife points be ground down to reduce violence. After this cutlers began to make the blunt ends of the knife wider and rounder so that food could be piled on the blade. By this time, food was being speared with forks.
The switch to blunt-tipped knives in Europe changed American dining etiquette. Very few forks were being imported to the Americas, and Americans soon found that the knives being imported no longer had sharp tips. Thus they began to use the spoon to steady food as they cut and then switched the spoon to the opposite hand in order to scoop up the cut food to eat. After forks became common in the United States, Americans continued this strange style of switching hands to cut, then eat.
With regard to etymology, the English word “knife” comes from the Old Norse “knífr”.