Cutlery can mean two things. The sharp-cut definition is the one given by Webster 1913 below - tools used for cutting. In Britain, the many varieties of knives, forks and spoons used to lay a table are considered cutlery. Chopsticks generally don't fall under this category, and neither do hands, the all-time favourite eating utensil.
The first definition is most common in American English, where the eating utensils as a whole are generally referred to as flatware or silverware. The latter is therefore the usage of British English and all its close relatives. This node will, in the spirit of politically correct and yet accurate infotainment, expand on both kinds of cutlery.
Cutlery that cuts
The knife was mankind's first fashioned tool, and one of the main separators from other animals. While monkeys may be able to use sticks as tools, Man was the only creature who began actively making and refining sharp edges that could cut things. This gave the vulnerable omnivore the strength and sharpness of the predator's incisors. It offered humanity the power to cut, slice and dice, a task which it grabbed with pleasure.
The oldest rough flint cutlery we have found is about 2 million years old. The first proper blades fashioned out of stone by humans date back to the Palaeolithic period (500,000-10,000 B.C.). By the Neolithic era the knives were polished and often given handles of other material. Then mankind discovered metal. Several ages followed, each categorised by the best metal they knew and which they, among other things, used to make knives. The usual patterns starts with copper, bronze follows, then iron, with steel as the final stage for now.
As knives could be shaped according to every wish, new forms and uses for them were found. They could be used in holy ceremonies as a tool or themselves be sacrificed to the gods. They could be used in fights or in wars. Indeed, cutlery soon became made for the very purpose of warfare, for in real life, unlike in the game rock, paper, scissors, the sword is usually mightier than the rock.
Cutlery of all sizes, for all purposes, has been developed all over the world. Many types have become a symbol for their culture, such as the Japanese katana, the Finnish puukko, or the Indian kukri. These are now desired and collected by people who secretly hold that knives are sexy. Swordplay has developed into the sport of fencing, and so the circle is made from helpful tool to horrendous weapon to harmless sport.
Below follows an incomplete list of noded cutlery. Watch your fingers, and don't run!
air knife -
balisong (Batangas or Butterfly knife) -
butter knife -
boning knife -
Bowie knife -
bread knife -
chef's knife -
combat knife -
drawing knife -
gravity knife -
guan dao -
paring knife -
peeling knife -
putty knife -
spalting or spalding knife -
Swiss Army knife -
Stanley knife -
Cutlery as tableware
Cutlery as we know it was first adopted by noblemen and later trickled down to the rest of the people.
Knives were long personal possessions, carried around by the owner and used for all purposes, one of which included cutting up meat. Knives were sharp and pointy - not only could they cut, they could also spit what one was carving. Steak knives still have this shape. The table knife changed shape with the introduction of other utensils better for holding the meat down, however, and is now usually rounded and blunt at the end.
Spoons must have been used for almost as long as knives - maybe since the agricultural revolution, when various grains could be made into porridge. This would be too hot to eat with one's hands, and too thick to slurp out of a bowl. They were more often made out of more perishable materials such as wood, dried bread(!), bone or shell, however, and so the knife received all the attention.
The fork is the younger brother in this company. It is thought to have originated in the Middle East, where it was used before the year 1000. It was brought to Italy from Byzantine in the eleventh century, whence it slowly spread to the rest of Europe. By 1600, it had reached England, where it was seen by many as a strange Italian affectation.
Skepticism lost way to evolution, however, and silverware became the standard at every fine dinner party. In fact, the amount of silver and decorations on it became a way to show off one's wealth. The utensils, as well as the rules on how to use them, became ever more specialised and intricate. Eating became a ritual; knowing the rules showed that you belonged.
With the discovery of mass production and stainless steel, cutlery became a household item for the masses in the late 19th century. A full set was obligatory for a young girl's bridal chest, and table manners became more or less established throughout society. Later on, new materials opened for inelegant, but convenient plastic "silverware" at an even lesser price. Recently cutlery has fallen out of fashion again, with hand-eaten pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers and fries being eaten in the old fashion, with the hands. Maybe it is a sign that the end times are near, maybe it is a reaction against the elaborate table manners of the past. Or perhaps it's just more convenient for lazy bums and people in a hurry.
Coping with cutlery
Cutlery seems to be destined to create differences between the Old and the New World. While Europeans eat holding a knife in their right hand and a fork in their left, the Americans use the so-called zig-zag method, which involves putting down the knife and shifting the fork to the right hand when using it to put anything into the mouth. Apparently, this confuddling difference also stems from cutlery, the knife.
While the fork made its slow march of victory over in Britain, Puritan America did not see any advantage in it. Yet their imported knives were still manufactured in Europe. Their pointy end no longer needed with the prongy presence of the fork, cutlers began making them rounded. This also greatly reduced knife fights at the table, which is simply not the done thing in polite company.
The poor Americans, though, had to import fork-compatible knives without the forks. As a substitute, they used their spoons to keep their food steady while cutting it. They then took the spoon with their right hand to better scoop up the cut food. When the fork finally did cross the Atlantic, this usage remained.
There are many rules of etiquette for using cutlery, most of which I don't know. One useful tip if you ever feel overwhelmed at a grand table, though: Start with the outermost cutlery and work yourself inwards. Use spoons for soups and desserts, knife and fork for just about everything else. Bon appetit!