“Dona nobis pacem.” Those Latin words, heard in the Agnus Dei section of the Catholic mass and also in the text of a religious song, mean “Give us peace.” The dona here has passed unchanged into Spanish, and English speakers have no trouble recognizing don- as the base in words like donate and donor. But I’m not here today to give you connections to related words that have to do with giving, many though they are. And I’m not here to talk about the old-fashioned Spanish dona that, like Italian donna, means ‘lady.’ No, in some regions of the Spanish-speaking world there’s yet a third dona, unrelated to the other two and more recent than either of them, that comes from English. If you don’t already know it, perhaps you can figure out what it is from this question that I found on the Internet: “¿Cuántas calorías tiene una dona de chocolate?” Definitely no chocolate lady here, but what English calls a chocolate donut. Many English speakers pronounce the final consonant as a sort of catch in the back of the throat (known technically as a glottal stop) rather than as a full-fledged t, so Spanish speakers really do hear the word as dona.
Like tho for though and tonite for tonight, donut is a simplified version of the word that used to be (and still can be) spelled doughnut. The first component is obviously dough, which is what a doughnut is made from. But although some varieties of doughnuts may have pieces of nuts sprinkled on them, the nut in doughnut is puzzling. The text containing the earliest known appearance of the word in print offers an explanation. In Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Washington Irving wrote in 1809:
Sometimes the table was graced with immense apple pies, or saucers full of preserved peaches and pears; but it was always sure to boast an enormous dish of balls 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, excepting in genuine Dutch families.
So the nut in doughnut was apparently being used loosely, based on the shape of a walnut or other nut, to mean ‘a compact mass, a small ball.’ Eventually, of course, people began to make doughnuts in other shapes. Thoreau, in an 1847 letter to his sister Sophia, described the stateroom in the ship (coincidentally named Washington Irving!) on which his friend Emerson sailed to Europe: “The window was about as big as a saucer [and there, coincidentally, is the word saucer again], and the glass two inches thick, not to mention another skylight overhead in the deck, the size of an oblong doughnut, and about as opaque.” Oblong doughnuts are still made, but far and away the most common shape now is a ring. Bakeries have even revived the original small-ball type of doughnuts, which they’ve curiously named doughnut holes.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman
* In case you’re wondering about olykoeks, it’s a Dutch term that means literally ‘oil cakes,’ which is what doughnuts are. New York, whose history Washington Irving was narrating, was originally the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam.