If you’re a spelling snob with a sweet tooth, you’ve encountered the question: Is it a donut or a doughnut?
The answer, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is that it is, in fact, both.
According to a post in the dictionary’s Words at Play blog to celebrate National Doughnut Day:
“We’ve been encountering the variant donut in published, edited text since the mid-20th century. It was certainly helped along by famous doughnut purveyors — both Dunkin’ and Mister — but in truth they and all who’ve accepted the variant were following in a tradition of phonetic-based spelling reform also embraced by the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster …
“Our inclusion of donut is based solely on evidence of the variant in a variety of published, edited texts.”
Phonetic-based spelling reform aside, let’s take a closer look at the doughnut chains: Dunkin’ Donuts and Mister Donut, two chains founded by brothers-in-law in the mid-1950s.
The first Dunkin’ Donuts was opened in 1950, a revamp of William Rosenberg’s coffee-and-doughnut shop Open Kettle. Rosenberg began franchising in 1955, opening the 100th location in 1963 and 1,000th shop in 1979.
A Dunkin’ Donuts representative told Business Insider the company did not have additional information on why Rosenberg spelled Dunkin’ Donuts as “donuts” versus “doughnuts,” though the chain could confirm that it has been spelled that way since 1950.
The first Mister Donut opened in Boston in 1955, and it expanded to nearly 1,000 locations in the US before its American business was acquired by Dunkin’ Donuts’ parent company in 1990. Today, Mister Donut has a booming business in Asia, with more than 10,000 locations worldwide.
As pointed out by the grammar blogger Grammar Girl, the rise of Dunkin’ Donuts (and, to a lesser degree Mister Donut), ran parallel to a significant growth of the use of the “donut” spelling since the 1950s, according to Google Books data.
Donut has gained ground even more rapidly in recent years. Since 2005, the use of the term donut has risen steadily, according to Google Trends, while the use of doughnut has remained constant — perhaps, in part, because of the character constraints connected to social media.
Still, don’t count the doughnut out just yet.
The Associated Press Style Guide prefers doughnut, as do most style guides. Even BuzzFeed’s
public style guide, which has references to phrases such as Bernie Bros (both capitalised) and mansplain (one word), prefers doughnut, except in the case of Dunkin’ Donuts. Despite its pro-phonetic-spelling spiel, Merriam-Webster actually
refers to donut as a variant of doughnut.
But what about when discussing Dunkin’ Donuts’ sweet treats? Can a doughnut chain sell donuts?
Apparently, yes. A Business Insider copy editor pointed out that the Associated Press had spoken directly on the issue.
In 2013, the company answered the question “Does Dunkin’ Donuts make doughnuts or donuts?” saying, “Donut is the company’s brand name for the food item spelled doughnut in the AP Stylebook and dictionaries.”
At first, it’s a counterintuitive answer.
However, upon further reflection, the fact there is even a question signifies the power of the chain. Sixty years ago, there was no doughnut-versus-donut debate. There was just the doughnut — and a coffee-and-doughnut shop in Quincy, Massachusetts, called Dunkin’ Donuts.
Today the majority of the best doughnuts shops in America sell “donuts,” not “doughnuts,” with names such as Bob’s Donut and Pastry Shop, Sugar Shack Donuts, and The Donut Man. Dunkin’ may have popularised the doughnut, but plenty of other chains have been willing to adopt it.
You can thank one chain for the rise of the donut — and your spelling angst. And remember, at the end of the day, unless you’re writing for a publication with a pledged allegiance to the AP Style Guide, the doughnut and donut are just two interchangeable names for “a piece of sweet fried dough that is often shaped like a ring.”
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