Miss Manners: Fork’s history is not a big mystery

September 18, 2011

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Can you explain why North Americans use a fork in their right hand and Europeans, from whom many of us descend, always use the left hand?

GENTLE READER: What, again?

Oh, dear, please forgive Miss Manners that unseemly outburst. She ought to be grateful that you asked. It is just that she has explained this so many times, and yet people persist in believing that American table manners deteriorated from their traditional European roots.

The opposite is true. The European method blossomed in America but was severely pruned in Europe.

A brief history: Europe, with the exception of Italy, adapted tardily and reluctantly to the use of the fork. As late as the early 19th century, some British country aristocrats were still holding out for tradition by declaring, “My grandfather ate with his knife, and it’s good enough for me.”

Knives, spoons and fingers were the implements of choice to spear, slurp and grab. Only one was needed at a time, so only the right hand was used. When the fork gradually came into European use, it, too, was brought to the mouth from only the right hand.

This was the correct European way of eating, and European settlers brought it to America, where it remains the correct method.

But in relatively modern times, Europeans started speeding things up by keeping the fork in the left hand even after it is used to steady food that is being cut by a knife held in the right hand.

Those who point out that the European manner is more efficient are right. Those who claim it is older or more sophisticated — etiquette has never considered getting food into the mouth faster a mark of refinement — are wrong.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: My son had a child with what is now his ex-girlfriend. I would never dream of ending our relationship. I love her. She will always be in my life. How do I introduce her to other people?

I call her my daughter-in-law, although they never married. Is this acceptable, or should I introduce her some other way (in case my son finally gets his head out of his __ and actually marries someone)?

I want it established that she is my grandson’s mother (and an excellent mother). I want her to be respected.

GENTLE READER: By no means does Miss Manners want to add distance to this relationship by discouraging your warm but misguided intention to introduce this lady as your daughter-in-law.

Even aside from the possibility of your son’s — well, let’s just say marrying — it would lead to awkwardness. People would ask her about him, perhaps even invite them together.

It would be so much less confusing to introduce her simply as “my grandson’s mother.” Your respect and affection will be obvious from the fact that you are introducing her around.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: My son was to be married this fall. “Save the date” cards were sent out last month. Should I send notices to our family/friends that the wedding has been canceled?

GENTLE READER: Or just leave them hanging with the saved date?

Visit Miss Manners at her Web site,www.missmanners.com, where you can send her your questions.

2011, by Judith Martin

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