Apple pie claims to be the most American of all the baked confections but if you think really think about it, there’s a pretty strong argument to be made that the donut is, in fact, the more patriotic pastry. The exact origin of the donut is a hotly contested debate involving the French, the Chinese, the Latin Americas, the Russians, and the Dutch—all of whom claim to have created the precursor to what we now recognize as those deep-fried circles of sugary goodness. But really, where did the donut actually come from and how did “donut” oust “doughnut” as the dominant spelling of the word here in the U.S.?
A quick search through the Library of Congress’s newspaper archives reveals mentions of the Dutch “oliekoek” (oil cake) dating back to 1881, but the term, and references to other variations of sweetened, fried dough go back much, much further. In his book Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut, anthropologist Paul R. Mullins links the modern American donut to a 1669 Dutch recipe for "olie-koecken."
As the Dutch migrated to the U.S. throughout the 19th century, many food historians reason in Glazed America, they brought along their recipes for oil cakes, dispersing them throughout local cultures they settled in. As similar as modern donuts may be to their Dutch ancestors, says Mullins, it isn’t fair to attribute the treat’s creation entirely to the Dutch.
“There’s not very good historical evidence for that,” Mullins told Fusion. “Every culture has fried dough. We often point to the Dutch reference as being the first popular reference, but there’s no good historical historical gun for its linkage to subsequent donuts.”
Regardless of where they came from, Americans across the country began developing an increasing appetite for “dough nuts” throughout the 19th century. Being fried rings of dough, the term “dough nut” makes sense. (Some theorize that the -nut in dough nut could be a reference to nuts as in “nuts and bolts,” but Mullins says there’s little etymological evidence substantiating that idea. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, though, references to pastries known as"nuts" date back to the late 18th century. In any case, the shortening of "doughnut" to “donut,” is a little more interesting, if difficult, to explain.
One of the first widely-seen usages of “donut” in a printed document can be found in George W. Peck’s Peck’s Bad Boy and his Pa, a children’s book published in 1900. In chapter 20, Bad Boy’s Pa expresses that “hadn't got much appetite, and he would just drink a cup of coffee and eat a donut."
There are a number of theories as to why “doughnut” was shortened to “donut,” but two stand out in particular for being weirdly economic: Mullins theorizes that as doughnut businesses proliferated in cities, shop owners opted to the “donut” spelling to save on the cost of advertising signage.
“When you buy neon signs you pay by the letter,” he told Fusion. “That’s not the whole answer but it’s definitely part of it.”
Another part of the answer may involve immigrants new to the country who wanted in on the economic opportunities that opening a donut shop could bring. In John T. Edge theorizes that the Display Doughnut Machine Corporation decided to shorten the pastry’s name in an effort to make it easier to pronounce for foreign entrepreneurs. The simpler spelling, Edge argues, could have made a stronger selling point for Display, who manufactured industrial donut making equipment.