Here's a useful mnemonic sent by Barbara Martin (9/00) that helps to teach youngsters how to set the table for meals:

4 letters:
5 letters:

The fork goes to the left of the plate, and
FORK and LEFT each have 4 letters.

The knife goes to the right of the plate, and
KNIFE and RIGHT each have 5 letters.

The same (right) properly applies to the SPOON
although many homes prefer to set it above the plate.

The simple table arrangements of the middle ages grew increasingly elaborate with advances such as the invention of the fork in the mid-1600s, until reaching a peak in Victorian times (ie. the late 1800's). Although table settings have become less complex and formal since then, the fundamental rules remain in use. For a small "silver service" dinner party for example, cutlery is arranged around the plate in order of its use - the soup spoon on the outside of the right hand, next to the fish knife and fork, next to the meat knife and fork, with finally the cheese knife set closest to the plate.

The whole history of table setting and table manners is quite extensive. According to the Oxford Junior Encyclopaedia, "man does not instinctively behave well at meals. In the absence of rules to the contrary he is concerned principally with satisfying his animal instincts of hunger and thirst". Conventions of civilised behaviour have gradually built up since the middle ages however, to establish codes of social behaviour at mealtimes based on a mixture of consideration for others, practical convenience and artificial rules of gallantry. For example a 16th century "Boke of Nurture" introduced the following table advice: "don't blow your nose on the napkin; if you must spit, tread it into the ground; don't blow on your soup or drink, for your breath may be foul; don't throw your bones under the table". Standing until told to sit (in deference to the authority of the lord or master of the house) was unquestioned, and as late as the mid-19th century no English child would have dared to sit in their parents' presence at all without first asking leave.


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