Mark Mandel Mark.A.Mandel at GMAIL.COM
Mon Sep 7 01:35:06 UTC 2009

An English friend of mine, K., wrote in his blog:

I went into Tesco [a very large retail chain] today and among other things I
picked up a couple of teaspoons. I then used the "self service" checkouts,
where the customer scans their own purchases. To my surprise a young lady
came up and asked if I had bought alcohol. No, no alcohol. Oh, on checking
the list she said "spoons!" Spoons? Yes, she confirmed, you have to be over
18 to buy any cutlery. What special damage am I supposed to be able to do
with a teaspoon if I'm under 18?

One commenter (A) speculated that "this is because Tesco's system lumps all
cutlery together and doesn't have a "knife" category [rather] than because
spoons are legally restricted."

I wondered if the relevant law uses the word "cutlery" in an older sense,
meaning something like "things that cut", and the supermarket software has a
more modern sense, what I call "flatware". Here is OED's definition, in its
entirety, supported by citations ranging from c1449 all the way up to 1846.

a. The art or trade of the cutler[*]. b. collect. Articles made or sold by
cutlers, as knives, scissors, etc. Also attrib.
* [Cutler: "One who makes, deals in, or repairs knives and similar cutting

Merriam Webster agrees, mostly:

1 : the business of a cutler
2 : edged or cutting tools; specifically : implements for cutting and eating

I asked K and other U.K. participants: Does "cutlery" include spoons in your
usual use of the word? Or is it an everyday word for you at all?

The answers were affirmative, although the word itself doesn't seem to be
part of the law (TM's comment, below). So the fault in the stores seems to
lie with the program. But the dictionaries are lagging.

Yes, in the usual sense of the word (and that used in shops as far as I've
seen) it includes spoons and forks as wel as knives, it's a generic term for
all eating utensils (but not usually things like ladles which come under the
generic "kitchen utensils"). When I was a kid the generic was 'silverware'
(and a lot of it did indeed have some silver, often as a plating, in its
construction whereas ladles, carving knives, etc. were often steel or other
materials), but even then we kept them all in a "cutlery drawer" in the
kitchen. I've never understood 'flatware', since spoons and forks aren't
very flat (nor are fishknives).

I don't know what words are used in the actual law, I've only seen summaries
of it, that's an interesting point.
The most applicable acts are
The Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act (1959)
(specifically to ban flick knives and similar)

The Criminal Justice Act (1988)

The Offensive Weapons Act (1996)

The Knives Act (1997)

None of which seem to mention "cutlery".

And yes, "cutlery" is what's in the cutlery drawer and includes knives
(regular, butter, fish and steak knives to name but four), forks (regular,
salad, fish and dessert (or cake)), spoons (tea, soup, dessert and table)
and close relatives of same.
In the purely colloquial sense, yes, I would include knife, fork & spoon as
cutlery (as in "I'll get the plates if you set out the cutlery").

I was in Ikea the other day - there, you have to be 21 or over to buy a set
of kitchen knives. I could see this being very inconvenient for an 18yr old
just setting out in his first place after leaving school, or setting up in a
flat for uni etc...

Mark A. Mandel

The American Dialect Society -

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