On Language: Slinging Muddle

By William Safire

Originally published in The New York Times April 3, 1988,
Sunday, Late City Final Edition


“HANDMADE SILVER flatware” is advertised by James Robinson of New York City, a firm that uses these comparatives: “More than hand-forged. Superior to handcrafted. Better than hand-finished.”

Yeah. What does hand-forged mean, anyway? “It could mean a process called ‘cold forging,’” says M. Kim Harwood, the manager, “which involves cutting a utensil from a sheet of silver, then hammering it to shape it.” Hand-finished? “Sounds good,” sniffs Mr. Harwood, “but it may mean only that someone holds the almost-completed piece in hand while the wheel turns and polishes it. Handcrafted is even more unclear — it tells you that somebody’s done something by hand, but not what or how much.”

Ah, but handmade is the real thing: “Hammering from the start makes the piece stronger and tougher. You have to be sure to control the balance and mold the metal properly in working a silver bar out. That gives the quality to handmade silver.”

Edward Munves, president of James Robinson, adds, “The surface of machine-made silver can become scratched. Handmade work hardens the metal and makes it tougher and stronger, harder to scratch or mar its surface.”

Hammering the words gives quality to advertising copy, too. Both handmade and handcrafted have been around so long they are single words; the newer hand-finished and hand-forged should be hyphenated until in wider use. But watch ’em: they’re weasel words.

Watch flatware, too. Here’s an ad by the Royal Viking Line in a recent Connoisseur magazine: “In a glass and flatware world, there is still a place for crystal and silver.” Doesn’t scan. Glass is to crystal as base metal or silver plate is to silver. Flatware is neither cheap nor classy; it just lies there, flat, not rolling around. Applied to cutlery, the word means knives, forks, spoons or the little gizmos you use to get the meat out of lobster claws, or the grabby devices that hold escargot shells (and must never be confused with eyelash curlers); these utensils can be made of plastic or stainless steel and still be classified as flatware, though the word is used more often in regard to silver or silver plate.

“The contrast to flatware is holloware,” writes Burton D. Hunter of Memphis. He’s right. Applied to dishes, flatware means plates, as distinct from holloware, which covers cups, soup bowls and pitchers. Like today’s column, they, too, can be hand-finished.

Copyright 1988, The New York Times Company, The New York Times