In Praise of Trivets

I was round my parents house the other day, and we needed to put a hot pan on the table for dinner. It went onto a tablemat, so the wooden table wouldn’t get burned.

I said to Dad “I wonder what the generic word is for that thing you put hot things on so they don’t burn the table?” and he said “It’s a trivet.”

Fantastic, I thought. A new word that I’d always needed. Because it gets really boring when you’re in the middle of cooking and you’re trying to say to someone “Can you put that thing that stops the table getting burned on the table please.”

So far so good.

I had a bunch of people round for dinner the other day, and asked for the trivet, and several among them were “Oh no, a trivet’s a very specific thing that’s made of iron and has three legs.” And according to the OED, they’re quite right.

But the thing about English is, it’s not like some languages I could mention, where there’s a right word and a wrong one, a correct way of saying things and an incorrect way.

Our dictionaries and grammars are descriptive, not proscriptive. In English there’s no equivalent of the Académie française to say what words are correct and should be used, and which aren’t and shouldn’t. Our dictionaries instead draw from a corpus of the language as she is spoke (or wrote), and describe how the language is used rather than how people think it ought to be used.

Which brings me back to trivets.

So, if (as my buddies are arguing) trivet shouldn’t be used for a thing-that-protects-a-surface-from-heat, then what should? A mat1 won’t do the trick, as that definition excludes things made of metal or glass.

So we need a generic word for a thing that protects the table from heat, and there isn’t one coded into the language yet, at least to the level where it’s made it into the dictionary.

Fortunately, it’s English, so if one doesn’t exist we can invent it. But first, a check that there isn’t already a generic word for such a thing. To Twitter!

(And to Facebook too, but they won’t let me embed from there. Walled-garden-loving idiots.)

A good start, but it’s two words rather than one, so IMHO a bit clunky.

Another great choice. Checking the translation shows that the French are actually ahead of us Southerners on this one. And unlike the French, we can steal their word and make it a part of our language immediately.

Still a phrase, though.

Another nice offering. It’s a new coinage, nouning a verb. Because we speak English, we can totally do that. (And if you pronounce it with a schwa, it’s actually a really beautiful word. Rolls off the tongue. Personally, I’d schwa the fuck out of that.)

But what about the options that already exist? A Google Images search for Pot Stand f’r’example, shows that’s probably the winner.

Unless and until, of course, you realise that you can also do a Google Images search for trivet. And there they are. Cork, metal, wood, and silicone. Three legs, four legs, no legs, more legs. Every shape and colour under the sun.

And you can buy them from Ikea. Or from John Lewis.


I love ’em.