Palate - palette - pallet

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The homophones palate, palette and pallet (all three are pronounced 'PAL-it', IPA: /ˈpæl ɪ (or ə)t/) are sometimes confused. Both are nouns; the third can be used as a verb, as the first can be - though rarely.

  • The palate is an organ of the body, in humans and other animals. It is the roof of the mouth, and separates the empty space of the mouth from that of the nose. The front part is called the hard palate, and the rear part, the velum, is also called the soft palate. From this literal meaning, some other meanings have developed.
    • The palate was thought to be the organ in which the sense of taste was centralised. So to say someone 'has a good palate' means that they have fine discrimination about food and wine, etc. Good cooks should have good palates.
      • This sense of 'fine distinction' and 'sensitive appreciation' has been transferred figuratively to other senses.
    • The (rare) verb 'to palate', historically 'to taste', also has the sense of 'to swallow', or figuratively, 'to tolerate' something. One may say "I cannot palate the fact that...", meaning that the speaker will not accept the thing proposed. In Shakespeare's language, the equivalent was "I cannot stomach [someone]".
  • A palette (with one '-l-' and two '-t-'s) is a tool. It is the flat board used by painters to hold the small quantities of oil paint, most usually squeezed from tubes, and which they can mix the different colours. An artist's palette is "typically oval in shape and having a thumb hole so that it can be carried in one hand while painting with the other" (OED), and with a brush or two is a symbol of the artist's profession. A palette knife, used for applying paint thickly, and in other fields, such as cooking (for scraping eggs and other ingredients) and printing (for spreading ink), has a flexible flat, blunt blade with a rounded tip.
    • So 'a palette of colours' is the range of colours used by a given painter. Rembrandt's palette, for example, tends to be browner than Titian's, which uses much brighter reds and yellows. This usage can be extended figuratively to other arts: a composer may be said to use a palette of instruments, and of course their characteristic sounds; and a gardener has a palette of plants. The range of colours in computers is often called the 'palette'.
      • The figurative sense of 'taste' (judgement and choice in appreciating any fine work) has been influenced, particularly in the appreciation of fine art, by the spelling of the painter's tool, the palette; so both spellings (palate and palette) have been used - though AWE would prefer palate for taste both literal and figurative, preferring palette for 'a range of colours or materials'.
  • A pallet (two '-l-'s, one '-t'; no terminal '-e') is linked etymologically with palette: both were originally 'flat-bladed tool like a shovel'. Most usually nowadays, a pallet is a sort of movable platform, usually made of wood, on which small goods may be stacked in order to be carried. These were first used in brick-fields; now, many can be seen in container ports, being easy to lift around by fork-lift trucks and cranes for onward carriage.
All of the above have several more specialised meanings and applications. To be sure you are using the appropriate spelling, look in a good dictionary.
pallet, palette and palate form one of the sets of homophones listed by the then Poet Laureate Robert Bridges.
(For more, see Bridges homophones). AWE has a category listing our articles on each of these.