How Dunkin' Doughnuts changed the dictionary

If you’re a spelling snob with a sweet tooth, you’ve encountered the question: Is it a doughnut 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 doughnut 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 doughnut 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’ Doughnuts and Mister Doughnut, two chains founded by brothers-in-law in the mid-1950s.

Dunkin DoughnutShutterstock/Sam HowzitDunkin’ refers to its sweet treats as ‘doughnuts’ in all instances.

The first Dunkin’ Doughnuts 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’ Doughnut spokesperson told Business Insider that the company did not have additional information on why Rosenberg spelled Dunkin’ Doughnuts as “doughnuts” versus “doughnuts,” though the chain could confirm that it has been spelled that way since 1950. 

The first Mister Doughnut opened in Boston in 1955, and expanded to nearly 1,000 locations in the US, before its American business was acquired by Dunkin’ Doughnut’s parent company in 1990. Today, Mister Doughnut has a booming business in Asia, with more than 10,000 locations worldwide.

As pointed out by grammar blogger Grammar Girl, the rise of Dunkin’ Doughnuts (and, to a lesser degree Mister Doughnut), ran parallel to a significant growth of the usage of of “doughnut” spelling since the 1950s, according to Google Books data

In recent years, doughnut has gained ground even more rapidly. Since 2005, the use of the term doughnut has risen steadily, according to Google Trends, while doughnut has remained constant — perhaps, in part, due to the character constraints connected to social media.  

Still, don’t count the doughnut out just yet.

Outside of the US, “doughnut” is still the term of choice, although Dunkin’ Doughnuts does use the term doughnut in the UK.

Krispy KremeFacebook/Krispy KremeKrispy Kreme sells ‘doughnuts,’ not ‘doughnuts.’

In fact, the AP 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’ Doughnuts. Despite its pro-phonetic-spelling spiel, Merriam-Webster actually 
refers to doughnut as a variant of doughnut. 

But what about when discussing Dunkin’ Doughnut’s sweet treats? Can a doughnut chain sell doughnuts?

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’ Doughnuts make doughnuts or doughnuts?” saying, “Doughnut is the company’s brand name for the food item spelled doughnut in the AP Stylebook and dictionaries.”

Mojo doughnutsYelp/Michael U.Mojo Doughnuts is one of many up-and-coming chains selling ‘doughnuts.’

At first, it’s a counterintuitive answer. How can Dunkin’ Doughnuts sell doughnuts, not doughnuts?

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 doughnut debate. There was just the doughnut — and a coffee and doughnut shop in Quincy, Massachusetts called Dunkin’ Doughnuts.

Today, the majority of the best doughnuts shops in America sell “doughnuts” not “doughnuts,” with names such as Bob’s Doughnut and Pastry Shop, Sugar Shack Doughnuts, and The Doughnut Man. Dunkin’ may have created the doughnut, but plenty of other chains have been willing to adopt it. 

You can thank one chain for the rise of the doughnut — 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 doughnut are just two interchangeable names for “a piece of sweet fried dough that is often shaped like a ring.”

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