Palette vs. Pallet vs. Palate

By Mark Nichol

Palette, pallet, and palate are three similar words sharing (in most senses) a common etymology that can trip writers up. Here’s a guide to the distinctions in meaning, plus a look at other distantly related words:

If you were to describe a traditional image of the artist at work, you and I would likely note the same tropes: the beret, the smock, the painter squinting one eye as he looks down his outstretched arm at his model or subject next to his upraised thumb or paint brush (a strategy that helps him determine proportions).

And in his other hand would be a flat, oval board, held with a handy thumb hole, with small, variously colored glops of paint — a palette. The name of this handy paint-mixing surface comes from French (certainement!) — the original meaning was “blade” or “small shovel” — and ultimately derives from the Latin term pala, meaning “shoulder blade” or “spade.” Palette, by association, later came to refer to the range of colors employed in a work of art or, later, available in analog and then digital graphic design. Several other, more obscure senses exist.

A pallet, meanwhile, is a flat structure made of wooden slats (or, increasingly, other materials), used to support heavy items in storage and when hauling freight, or a wooden tool used in pottery or a flat component in an analog clock that sets it in motion. In heraldry, pallet denotes a vertical band of color. These meanings derive from the “blade” sense of palette. The same word used to refer to a crude bed or mattress, the latter generally stuffed with straw, is unrelated.

The palate, the name of the roof of the mouth, is also of Latin origin: Palatum means just that. (Oddly, the palate, rather than the tongue, was long considered the medium by which taste is experienced, hence the use of the word to mean “sense of taste.”) The adjective palatable means “tasty.” Another adjective, palatine, used in anatomy to identify, for example, the palatine bone, is unrelated to the identical-looking word derived from palace.

Plate and its many forms are only tangentially related to this trio. Taken as is from French, it originally meant “a flat piece of metal,” ultimately from the Greek word platys, meaning “flat,” which was borrowed by Latin as plattus. The sense of a shallow dish is from the fact that such utensils were originally made of precious metals; one meaning of plate, singular in construction but plural in meaning, to refer to valuable dishes retains this sense.

Words with the same origin as plate include plateau, platelet (literally, “little plate”), platen, platform, platinum, platitude, platter, and platypus (literally, flat foot”).

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3 Responses to “Palette vs. Pallet vs. Palate”

  • Nann Dunne

    Though not shown in MWC dictionary, pallet is also used with pallet knife (also called palette knife) – a round-ended spatula with a thin flexible blade used by artists for mixing, applying, and scraping off paint.

    Confusing, but I believe both spellings are accepted.

  • Deborah H

    Good words today. I always enjoy the history.

  • Sally

    Greek ‘platys’ also means ‘broad’ and is at the root of the name of the Australian monotreme, the platypus (= ‘broadfoot’). Its feminine form, ‘plateia,’ was borrowed into Latin and eventually gave us ‘plaza’ (through Spanish) and ‘piazza’ (from Italian). The latter form was borrowed back into Modern Greek – ‘piatsa,’ means ‘market-place.’

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