Words we mix up: palate, palette or pallet

A little piece of an advertising circular caught my eye this morning as I made my way through the Sunday edition. I wondered whether the word use was correct.


The photo is not clear, but it looks as if the advertised product is a set of makeup powders, perhaps a combination of eye shadows, blush and compact powder, in a case. If I had written the copy, I would have called the products "cometics palettes," drawing on the metaphor of a painter's palette — a board that contains dabs of various pigments. The word used — pallet — refers most often to thin mattress lying on a floor or a portable platform used for storing and moving goods. Maybe the case could be made that the cosmetics are on a platform, but I think the artist reference is more likely.

What struck me about this misuse is that it is much less common than confusing palette (referring metaphorically to a range of colors ) and palate (referring to the roof of the mouth or metaphorically to taste). I had caught one of those mix-ups Friday in a story I was editing for Monday's paper.

Stay with the same palate (changed to palette) of colors, but mix up the fabrics by pairing velvet with satin or lace.

I wish I had an easy mnemonic to share with writers and editors to help us all keep these three homonyms straight. If you know one, please leave a comment on this post.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.