Where does the divide between "donut" and "doughnut" come from?
EC: The Battle to Put the “Ugh” Back in Doughnut
Credit: Illustration by Dave McCaig

Let’s get a few things out of the way. Debating whether doughnut or donut is the “correct” spelling for the word to describe a beloved ring of sweetened fried dough is about as useful an exercise, in my view, as trying to get people to agree on an official spelling for Caitlin (or is it Kaitlin? Katelyn? Catelyn? Catelin? Caitlyn? Kaitlyn?).

It is true that doughnut is the older one: Though often attributed to Washington Irving, who in his 1809 History of New York used “dough nut” and “oly koek” interchangeably to describe a “delicious kind of cake” found in the homes of “genuine Dutch families,” it also appears in the 1803 edition of Sussanah Carter’s cookbook The Frugal Housewife, or Complete Woman Cook, in an appendix of recipes “adapted to the American mode of cooking,” which in this case meant throwing dough into a vat of boiling hog’s lard.

If, when it comes to language, you are an older-is-better person, you might at this juncture consider the matter settled. But you also might be missing the point: When we debate the spelling of doughnut we can’t help revealing our core beliefs about that glistening treat and the world in which it’s consumed.

Perhaps the clutter-averse graphic designer prefers the look of the word with the silent letters removed—it’s as streamlined and symmetrical as doughnuts lined up on a conveyor belt inching toward a uniform curtain of glaze. The dedicated local shopper might choose doughnut on a nagging hunch that the behemoth chain Dunkin’ owns donut the way McDonald’s owns “egg McMuffin.” And while grammarians and copy editors are the groups most often accused of overstating the significance of subtle linguistic disputes, in this case it’s a new generation of doughnut purveyors themselves who are framing this debate as a battle for nothing less than what the greasy dough circle is and should be.

At the heart of their argument is the puzzling assertion that a donut and a doughnut are not spellings of the same thing, but actually different foods. For the camp that wants to keep the “ugh” in doughnut, the snack “properly” spelled has specific attributes: expertly made, expensive, cooked to order. A mere donut, by contrast, is in their view a mass-produced fast food item that, though more easily obtained, isn’t nearly as satisfying. But you won’t find this distinction in any dictionary—at least not yet.

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Credit: Photo by Flickr user Sebastian Dooris

First of all, donut isn’t exactly new. It appears in the New York Times as early as 1939—predating texting and Twitter and television and all the other forces often blamed for the imagined decline of our language. Second, as Merriam-Webster associate editor Emily Brewster notes in a blog post on the dictionary’s inclusion of the latter variant, the doughnut to donut move reflects the principles of “phonetic-based spelling reform,” an American tradition at least as old as frying in pig’s fat. (We have the great patriot Noah Webster to thank for changing centre to center, publick to public, and plough to plow in his throwing off of the colonial linguistic yoke, though his iz for is and yeer for year never quite caught on.)

Donut makes the cut in Webster, as in the Oxford English Dictionary, for the same reason public is in and yeer is out: People have been using the newer word, not just casually but in published and edited text, for decades. The AP and Chicago style manuals stubbornly continue to prefer doughnut, which is why you might be more likely to see it in books and newspapers (and why it’s the standard spelling in this article), even as donut is (way) on the rise online.

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Credit: Photo by Flickr user istolethetv

None of that changes the fact that for many doughnut makers and eaters—as for the parents of Kaitlyns and maybe for you—etymology is no match for gut feelings about what a particular spelling represents. Indeed, pro-doughnut sentiment among a certain group of 21st-century fried-dough artisans is fueled by something much more powerful than logic. Snobbery is something we’ve long associated with the old-school, white-tablecloth, fine-dining experience, and even in recent years learned to spot nestled between mason jars in rustic farm-to-table joints. But snootiness in the realm of junk food is a far newer and, in many ways, more complicated thing: It means eating your fill of sugar and fat while turning up your nose at the very notion of ease—at anything mass-produced, purchased at gas stations and vending machines, and widely available through national chains, all things doughnuts historically have been.

“There was no question we would always be a doughnut shop,” wrote Rebecca Roth Gullo, co-founder of Blackbird Doughnuts, which since its opening in January 2015 has been billed as the only artisanal doughnut shop in Boston that bakes onsite. “It is the original spelling and much more classic in feeling. It also differentiated us in our process.... We are an artisanal shop that makes everything from scratch, just as it would have been classically produced.”

Will Hand, director of business development and marketing at District Doughnut in Washington, D.C., made the association between simplified spelling and culinary indolence even more explicit, writing “A decision to use the longer and historically proper spelling represents a commitment to restore the care, time, and effort left behind by a push for pure convenience. To us, only an abandonment of such essential elements would allow for an abbreviated spelling!”

Then Hand described what making doughnuts the right (meaning, of course, difficult) way entails: “A doughnut must be made with a scratch-made dough recipe, which acquires a unique flavor from hours of fermentation—never a bag mix! A doughnut is finished with fresh fruit glazes, rich pastry creams, and pleasing visual accents. A doughnut is intricate, multi-layered, and made with technique and effort. A doughnut is a simple delight and a work of art, all in one. So, the next time you spot donut, consider whether the abbreviation extends further than the spelling.”

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Credit: Photo by Flickr user Rudi Riet

There are also, I am relieved to report, plenty of 21st-century small-batch doughnut makers who have no special love for the “ugh,” or at least aren’t as shrill in their declarations of its superiority. (Sara Heise, “executive wrangler and wedding coordinator” at Portland’s Voodoo Doughnut, and Leslie Polizzatto, executive director and co-founder of The Doughnut Project in Manhattan’s West Village, told me that they mostly liked doughnut just because it had “dough” in it). Several who went with donut instead, including Amanda Pizarro, co-founder of The Salty Donut (Miami’s first craft donut shop, founded 2016), told me they chose it for practical or design reasons; it’s easier to fit on signs and t-shirts and in social media handles. Others, embracing a version of the frozen-in-the-1950s Krispy Kreme (founded 1937) aesthetic, bucked the doughnut trend by adopting a retro midcentury Americana feel.

So how had several of their peers independently come to believe that the “ugh” in doughnut meant “made carefully from scratch”? When I posed the question to Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis anthropologist Paul Mullins, author of the highly informative Glazed America (the source of much of the doughnut history I relate here), he seemed weary. This evidently wasn’t the first time the doughnut/donut query had come across his desk, and he cautioned that he could provide “no satisfying resolution.” But he offered that “craft bakeries almost certainly prefer doughnut for the sense of historical depth if not authenticity that it evokes and an effort to escape the implication that their products are mass foods in any way.”

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Credit: Photo by Flickr user rayb77

Small-batch doughnut makers of today are, I think, reaching for the older spelling to signal their rejection of a set of industry standards introduced by one Adolph Levitt, a Russian immigrant who worked with an engineer to develop a standardized doughnut-making machine in 1920. Almost as soon as a prototype was installed in the window of Levitt’s Harlem bakery, he started marketing it to other bakers around the country, along with bags of prepared flour and other supplies (think powdered egg yolk) that streamlined the fiddly and time-consuming process of doughnut-making. The sales of the products simultaneously financed the expansion of Levitt’s chain, Mayflower Doughnuts (which opened a glitzy outpost in Times Square in 1931), and made it easy for all kinds of shops nationwide to add doughnut-making to their repertoire.

Levitt, the ultimate pastry hype man, also founded the Doughnut Corporation of America, which celebrated its first National Donut Month in October 1928, made a big splash at the World’s Fair in 1939, and recruited celebrity members to its tongue-in-cheek Dunking Association of America. His tireless promotion (and numerous advertising campaigns on the virtues of making, selling, and eating doughnuts) worked: National doughnut consumption rose from 1.26 billion in 1933 to 3.96 billion in 1939 and 7.2 billion in 1945; today we eat something like 10 billion.

It is curious that, though Levitt and his corporation used both doughnut and donut in various campaigns, the long-standing chains with roots in the midcentury doughnut heyday that his innovations ushered in seem to be mostly donut (not doughnut) shops. There’s Oram’s Donuts (founded 1938), Shipley Do-Nuts (1936), LaMar’s Donuts (1960), and, yes Dunkin’ Donuts, which, founded in 1950, made a strong play for complete national dominance with the 1990 purchase of Mister Donut (also from 1950).

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Credit: Photo by Flickr user Shane Adams

Though employing nonstandard spellings (like Chick-fil-A or Toys “R” Us) is a time-tested tactic companies have long employed to boost memorability of their brand names, none of these brands had a trademark on donut—and everybody seemed to be using it. As Webster’s Emily Brewster pointed out to me, though Dunkin’ may be partly responsible for making donut look okay to most of us (“repeated exposure surely makes the variants less jarring to the reader than they’d otherwise be,” she says), it’s really just the most visible survivor from a time when donut seemed to be the hip industry term.

In Levitt’s day, when expertly calibrated machines promised to save time and preserve our health by saving us from “fat-soaked” dough balls inexpertly fried, donut may have appealed because it sleeker, cleaner, more modern and efficient; today, the older, more labor-intensive way—and, by extension, spelling—almost always reads as safer, more wholesome, more authentic. Or at least cool.

In Glazed America, Mullins points out that doughnuts have long been stereotyped as an obesity-inducing working class food, despite being eaten in every era by people of all incomes and sizes—a tension today’s craft doughnut makers appear to be working to their advantage. Like their colleagues specializing in artisanal pop-tarts, corn dogs, ice cream sandwiches, and all manner of other high-low treats, they pair familiar comforts with stories designed to quell our anxieties about health (organic! local!) and class (boutique!). For some, the doughnut spelling is part of the show.

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Credit: Photo by Visions of America/ Getty Images

That’s a heavy load for three little letters to carry, and I’m not sure the distinction some artisanal bakers would have us make between the words donut and doughnut is likely to stick. But they’re smart to explore the ever-widening cultural gulf between the quick blood sugar-booster you order at the drive-thru and the exotically flavored (but locally sourced!) confection from the little shop with the line snaking around the block.

Bring a batch of hand-crafted confections with flavors like hibiscus or ricotta and beet to your next office meeting and you make a different impression than you would with the standard dozen in the orange-and-pink box. Both are a nice gesture; each will reliably elicit protestations about diets and sugar as poison and how oh-we-really-shouldn’t-but-we-must. But after that, the conversations diverge. As always, the words we use, like the foods we eat (never a bag mix!), are markers of who we are and what cohort we belong to. If donut signals unpretentious fun, a fleeting self-indulgence, a doughnut seems to demand quiet contemplation. It’s as though we’re being asked to ponder its gastronomic seriousness, almost as penance for calories consumed.

The thing is, both taste good. And on different days, in different moods, the same person might reach for either. So while the doughnut might be having its day, I think the donut is here to stay, too.