Fork with wooden handle

The Fork—Extraordinary Ordinary Things

If you are anything like me, when you hear the word “fork,” you probably automatically think of “knife” because the two go together like bread and butter, ham and eggs, shoes and socks, New York and skyscrapers, New Year’s and resolutions, and a host of other tightly conjoined tandems. However, the idea of a fork and a knife working together in common cause, e.g. eating, is relatively new. The knife in human history preceded the fork by many centuries. In its earliest manifestation, the eating fork was once a multi-bladed knife.

Remember, in eating, a knife is used for more than just cutting; it is also used for piercing. This was its essential function at the dining table for centuries. To take a piece of pre-carved meat (such as a roast) from a central platter, diners would spear it with a knife and transfer it to their plate. They would then use the same knife to bring it to the mouth. As originally conceived, eating forks were a kind of a two-blade (forked) knife that made these manipulations easier. However, the idea of the eating (dinner) fork being an instrument for holding down a piece of meat on the plate for cutting and then bringing the cut morsel to diner’s mouth for eating was a much later development.

The concept of a forked (multi-bladed) piercing utensil goes far beyond the dinner table. Variations of the concept are used in a myriad of industries: dung fork, harpoon fork, hay fork, rotation fork, tuning fork, fork-tailed, forklift truck, and even computing—blockchain fork, data fork, fork operating system, etc. Moreover, the term appears in numerous common idioms: fork out, fork over, fork in the road, Morton’s fork, forked tongue, stick a fork in it, etc.

Given its multiple forms and uses, I believe the fork unquestionably deserves the accolade of being included on the list of what I like to call an “extraordinary ordinary thing.”

The Fork in Culinary Culture

When I was a teenager, I was invited to attend a formal dinner as a winner of a high school essay contest. When we started to eat, a teacher came up to me and said, “Eat properly. You’re representing the school.” I didn’t know what he meant, so I continued eating. Again, he came up to me and said, “Eat properly!” I still didn’t know what he meant, but I knew I didn’t enjoy the rest of the meal. Only afterward did I discover that I had not been manipulating the fork and knife in the “correct” American manner. According to American etiquette, to eat a steak, you hold down the meat with the fork in the left hand and cut it with the knife in the right hand. You then put down the knife, switch the fork from the left to the right hand, spear the meat and move to your mouth.

I was completely unaware of this. In my family, we always held the meat down with the fork in the right hand, cut it with the knife in the left hand, put down the knife, and move the meat directly towards your mouth. There is no crossing of the fork from the left hand to the right hand. Having grown up with this way of doing things since infancy, to me it was quite natural. I had never noticed that other people did it a different way; hence my confusion about what the teacher meant when he said, “Eat properly!” I discovered this only after being embarrassed at the banquet. I still see no logic to the routine, but at least I now knew proper eating etiquette.

Except the U.S. is one of the few places in the world where it is improper. In many countries, proper eating etiquette is the way I had always been doing it; eating the American way, if not considered improper, is certainly considered bizarre.

Later when I entered the business world, I was invited to a banquet where the main dish was fried chicken legs (drumsticks). Having no experience with business banquets, I watched the others to see how they proceeded. Everyone was trying to cut the meat off the drumsticks with a knife and fork, with little success. I followed suit, also with little success. Becoming increasingly hungry, after about 10 minutes, I picked up a drumstick, brought it to my mouth, and began pulling the flesh off with my teeth. Almost immediately, I heard sighs of relief and saw just about everyone else in the banquet hall doing the same thing. They had all been waiting for someone to do what comes naturally, but apparently only at home, not in such a prestigious formal setting.

The word “fork” has a wide variety of meanings. To most people, it probably means the latter part of the common phrase “a knife and a . . . .”  However, up until only a few hundred years ago you might have said “a knife and a knife.” The distinction is a knife has a single blade, while a fork has two or more blades (prongs, tines). Its principal culinary use was in the kitchen as an aid to cooking. In the dining room, its principal purpose was to skewer food from a central platter and bring it back to one’s plate. Previously, this was done with a simple knife; a fork with tines (usually two) made this transfer of food from platter to the plate rather easier.  However, once the food was there, the fork was set aside and not used to aid eating because there were other options. For example, during the Middle Ages, most people ate off round pieces of stale bread called “trenchers,” which were piled with cooked meat and vegetables and then brought by hand to the mouth, i.e. a sort of open-face sandwich. Knives, spoons, and hands were used to bring other foods to the mouth, leaving the fork resting on the side.

In many parts of the world, eating without forks and knives is still very much the case for the same basic reason. Food is prepared in small morsels and scooped up by eaters on pieces of bread or other comestibles and put directly in the mouth. Here, India would be the prime example, along with many other countries throughout the Middle East and Africa. In China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and other Asian countries, they prefer chopsticks. Here, the eating process is more delicate. Instead of being scooped up, small portions of food are dexterously squeezed between the ends of the chopsticks as in a vice and then brought to the mouth.

Precursors of the modern eating fork in Western culture date from antiquity. Bone forks have been found in archaeological sites in China dating back to the Bronze Age Qijia culture (c. 2400–1900 B.C. E.) and the Shang dynasty (c.1600–1050 B.C.E.). There is also evidence that large forks were used for cooking in Ancient Egypt.

In the Roman Empire, fork use varied according to local customs, social class, and the type of food. But they were mainly used for cooking and serving.

The equivalent of what today would be called a table fork was most likely invented in Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, where their common use dates to the 4th century.  The use of table forks by the social elite in Persia has also been documented. By the 10th century, the table fork was in common use throughout the Middle East.

Its move into Western Europe was slow and sporadic. The first recorded use of a table fork in Western Europe was by Theophano Skierina, wife of Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, at a banquet in 672 C.E.

By the 11th century, the table fork had found a natural home in the Italian peninsula because of the region’s historical ties with the Byzantine Empire, and the increasing popularity of pasta dishes into the Italian diet. The three-pronged fork proved to be considerably more convenient for gathering up pasta noodles than the previously used wooden spike. In the 16th century, the fork became commonplace in Portugal and Spain due to the spreading influence of Italian etiquette across Southern Europe.

Adoption of the table fork in Northern Europe occurred only in the 18th century, but not without controversy. For some, it was viewed as “unmanly,” an undesirable Italian affectation. Some writers in the Roman Catholic Church, such as St. Peter Damian, strenuously argued against its use because of its “excessive delicacy.”

A major argument in favor of adopting the fork had to do with the perceived danger of not doing so. The so-called “eating knife” was first and foremost a weapon.  And given the advances in iron and steel metallurgy, knives had become commonplace within all classes, from high-placed nobles to poor workers and farmers. Because hosts were not obliged to provide their guests with eating utensils, they carried their own knives with them. Thus, the eating knife could be used both for eating and stabbing. Fearing the latter, in the 17th century, King Louis XIV of France banned the use of the sharp-tipped knives for eating. In their place, he introduced designs with a blunt, ground-down point that could not be used for stabbing. This new kind of eating knife soon became a standard feature of European and American dining etiquette. Dispensing with eating knives in favor of the more convenient fork became almost inevitable.

The Fork in Vocabulary

Once the fork had obtained its bona fides as an eating utensil, it is not surprising that very specific types of forks were developed to handle very specific eating tasks. Some of these are clear from the name, e.g. asparagus fork, barbecue fork, berry fork, cheese fork, crab fork, dessert fork, fish fork, fondue fork, olive fork, oyster fork, salad fork, sardine fork, etc. Others require a bit of explanation. For example:

  • Beef fork (for picking up thinly sliced beef)
  • Carving fork (with two prongs to hold meat steady while being carved)
  • Chip fork (small plastic fork specifically for eating French fries (known as “chips” in Britain) and other takeaway foods
  • Cocktail fork (resembling a trident for spearing olives and other cocktail garnishes)
  • Pickle fork (long-handled fork used for extracting pickles from a jar)
  • Spaghetti fork (whose tines can be rotated to pick up spaghetti or other types of long-strand pasta)
  • Spork (combining characteristics of a spoon and a fork)
  • Sucket fork (with tines at one end and a spoon at the other for eating foods preserved and served in syrup)
  • Toasting fork (usually with two tines on a long metal shaft for toasting food over coals or an open flame)

And the list goes on.

But we are not yet done. The word “fork” basically means to divide or split, which is the origin of many other uses of the word, although occasionally the connection with fork is somewhat tenuous.

The one that perhaps comes most readily to mind is “pitchfork.” This large, long-handled farming implement with a multipronged fork at the end is specifically designed for shoveling hay and similar crops.

Another one that quickly comes to mind is “forklift truck.” This small vehicle with a movable two-pronged fork, which can be raised and lowered, is used for moving heavy boxes around in a warehouse. One of the pioneers of the forklift was The Clark Material Handling Company of Lexington, Kentucky. It is still one of the world’s leading suppliers, such that in certain languages the brand name has become the generic name. For example, in Belgium the name for a forklift truck in French is a “clark”; the operator of such a vehicle is a “clarkist.”

And who hasn’t used the term “a fork in the road,” meaning a split where travelers have to decide which direction (prong) to take because they can’t take both. Perhaps the most graphic depiction of this idea appears in Robert Frost’s celebrated poem “The Road Not Taken” (1916).

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In the same manner, a river fork is a place where a river divides into two parts. Towns and cities are often founded at such a point of division, with the names of certain towns and cities attesting to this fact, e.g. Grand Forks (North Dakota), American Fork (Utah), Spanish Fork (Utah), and City of Forks (Washington. Farms and ranches also occasionally use the word fork in their name. Perhaps the oddest, or at least the most imaginative, is Blazing Pitch Forks Ranch (Lakeview, Michigan).

Other expressions with the word fork would include:

  • Farm to fork: The chain of events by which what is produced on a farm ends up on the consumer’s plate.
  • Forked lightning: A bolt of lightning that seems to split into several related lightning trails. This is a misconception. Lightening, in fact, is generated from the ground to the sky. What we are seeing is two or more bolts of lightning rising from the ground and joining each other on the way up. Because it all takes place so fast, you cannot tell which direction it is going. The idea that lightning comes from the sky is cultural. The ancients believed that whatever happens on Earth is controlled by the gods who lived in the sky. Try to picture the Greek god Zeus without automatically thinking a heavily bearded immortal on high launching lightning bolts down through the clouds to terrify the puny human beings far below them on the ground. It can’t be done.
  • Fork-tailed: The tail of a bird that divides into two or more distinct branches.
  • Bicycle or motorcycle fork: The part of such vehicles that holds the front wheel, typically consisting of two blades joined at the top by a fork crown.
  • (Chess) fork: A maneuver in which a single chess piece makes two or more direct attacks.
  • Dung fork: The name speaks for itself.
  • Harpoon fork: Despite its name, the harpoon fork has nothing to do with whaling. Rather, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a big mechanical device used for moving large quantities of recently harvested hay out of wagons and into barns to continue the drying and curing process. Operated with ropes and pulleys, the harpoon forks (hay-lifting forks) was powered by humans or horses.
  • Morton’s fork: A dilemma, essentially equivalent to Hobson’s choice or the expression “on the horns of a dilemma.
  • Fork over: To surrender something to another person. Possibly deriving from the slang term “to fork” for picking someone’s pocket using only two fingers (resembling a two-tined fork). 
  • Fork out: To spend money. Like “fork over,” also possibly deriving from the slang term “to fork” for picking someone’s pocket using only two fingers (resembling a two-tined fork).  

And who can ignore the iconic use of the word in the expression “forked tongue.” Biologically, it refers to birds and snakes that literally have a forked (split) tongue. However, the term most commonly used can be attributed First Nation (Native American) people; the phrase “to speak with a forked tongue” means to deliberately say one thing and mean another, i.e. to lie.

Given modern sensibilities about race and culture, you might be tempted to think the phrase is probably the invention of late 19th century and early 20th century cowboys and Indians novels and cinema films, but you would be wrong. The phrase was actually used in the languages of a number of different indigenous tribes. It was subsequently adopted by European settlers in North America around the time of the U.S. War for Independence (1775-1783), often in negotiations between American authorities and tribal leaders. For example, President Andrew Jackson reportedly used it in 1829 when negotiating with the Creek Nation (Oklahoma), assuring them that his government “spoke with a straight and not with a forked tongue.” I will leave it to historians to determine just how true this is.

Forks and Computers

By simplest description, a computer is a machine in which electronic impulses are directed (forked) along complex integrated circuits. It, therefore, should be no surprise that the term “fork” has found numerous applications in computing.

The earliest use of fork in computing was probably in programming. In the 1960s when time-sharing was invented, the designers coined the term “process” for a program in execution. The job of the operating system was to multiplex the CPU from one process to the next, giving the illusion that all proceeded in parallel at a slower speed.

In order to implement parallel processes, programmers had to “fork” to a process. This created a separate “child” process originating at the fork point in the program that then executed code in parallel with the “parent” process that forked it. Like this:

Fork k {A: <code>; exit} Join k

This meant: Create k copies of process A. When a copy exists (finishes), it dies. When all k copies have exited, the parent continues from the join. In other words, the parent waits at the join until all the children have exited.

The idea that software can fork becomes a high-level idea when software developers create a new line of software based on a different design; The two lines of software are developed in parallel and can evolve independently.

Software forking happens in open-source development communities when different factions get at loggerheads as to which design idea is better. They decide to go their separate ways. A software fork can result in regrettable duplication of development efforts. On the other hand, a successful fork can save development time, inspire new uses for old code, and create new business opportunities.

Software forking falls into several different categories. Most fundamentally, to be considered a fork at all, the new version of the software must have its own name and its own developer community. A new program that remains compatible with the original program is generally referred to as a shadow fork.

Here are a few other fork-related terms commonly used in computing.

  • Resource fork: This consists of a resource header, the resources themselves, and a resource map. The resource fork stores information in a specific form, containing details such as icon bitmaps, the shapes of windows, definitions of menus and their contents, and application code.
  • Data fork: This usually contains data created by the user. The application creating the file can store and interpret the data in the data fork in whatever manner is appropriate.
  • Fork bomb: This is a denial-of-service attack, i.e. a process that continually replicates itself to deplete available system resources, thus slowing down or crashing the system due to resource starvation. Because it continually replicates itself, a fork bomb is also known as a “rabbit virus.” Or simply a “wabbit,” which is an allusion to how the cartoon character Elmer Fudd pronounced the word rabbit when referring to Bugs Bunny.
  • Project fork: This occurs when developers copy the source code from a piece of software and develop it into a separate and distinctly different piece of software.
  • Fork and pull: This refers to when multiple developers working on an open-shared project make their own contributions by sharing a main repository and pushing changes after granted pull request by integrator users. It is applied mainly on GitHub, which naturally enables the use of a pull-based development model. GitHub is very popular within the open software development community; in 2015, 400,000 pull requests were entered each month. Git is also a model shared on most collaborative coding platforms such as BitBucket and Glorious. Although acquired by Microsoft in 2018, GitHub continues to operate independently as a community, platform, and business. 

So, the next time you sit down to a meal, give a thought to how that extremely common pronged utensil in your hand has influenced your work. Truly extraordinary.