Word Choice: Doughnut vs. Donut

Doughnut vs. Donut

It is National Doughnut Day today. This raises two main questions:

  1. Why is there a National Doughnut Day?
  2. Isn’t the correct spelling for a sweet fried-dough cake donut?

We’ll leave the first question to any historians of baked goods out there, but the second one is our area of expertise. Let us look, then, at whether there is any difference between a doughnut and a donut.

The History of Doughnut

The spelling ‘doughnut’ has been around since the early nineteenth century. Its first recorded use in writing comes from Washington Irving’s description of a tea party in his History of New York. These parties were:

[A]lways sure to boast an enormous dish of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts or olykoeks—a delicious kind of cake, at present scarce known in this city, except in genuine Dutch families.

The ‘olykoeks’ mentioned here were a similar foodstuff that arrived in America with Dutch immigrants. This Dutch term translates roughly to ‘oil cakes’, though, so you can see why ‘doughnuts’ caught on instead.

Also known as ‘oliebollen’ or ‘oil balls’, so ‘oil cakes’ is at least a relatively appetising name.
(Photo: Sander van der Wel)

The ‘dough’ bit in ‘doughnut’ is self-explanatory, but the ‘nut’ might seem confusing given that doughnuts do not usually contain nuts. It is actually an old-fashioned term meaning ‘a small round cake or biscuit’. So a ‘doughnut’ is a bit like a ginger nut (a small round ginger biscuit) in this sense.

The Rise of Donut

In case you weren’t sure, a donut is the same thing as a doughnut. The simplified spelling ‘donut’ is a little newer, though, having first popped up in the USA in the early twentieth century.

This spelling then slowly gained acceptance as a variant of ‘doughnut’ until 1950. At that point, a small restaurant called Open Kettle that sold doughnuts and coffee changed its name to Dunkin’ Donuts.

Now just Dunkin', but they still sell 'donuts'.

Now just Dunkin’, but they still sell ‘donuts’.

Since then, the spelling ‘donut’ has spread much further. And while it is still mainly used in American English, most dictionaries list it as a variant.

Summary: Doughnut or Donut?

‘Doughnut’ and ‘donut’ are simply variant spellings. As such, neither is necessarily wrong. However, we do have some guidelines on using each one:

  • Doughnut is still the main spelling of this term, especially outside North America. As such, you should generally use this spelling if you need to mention doughnuts in formal writing or when writing for a UK audience.
  • Donut is a variant of this term, mainly used in the USA. However, you should use this spelling when referring to the brand Dunkin’ Donuts.

And if you’re too busy eating doughnuts today to proofread your own writing, why not let the experts do it instead? We promise not to get any jam on your document (unless we run out of red ink, obviously).

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