Sometimes the history of a word can take you by surprise. In Jonathan Culler’s 1976 book Saussure I came across a note on the etymology of treacle that showed how a couple of twists and turns can carry a word very far from its origins – so far as to seem fantastically improbable when the intervening steps are omitted, as the title of this post suggests.
Treacle is familiar to modern speakers as “a thick sweet black liquid used in cooking” – a syrup like molasses – and perhaps also in its figurative sense of something cloyingly sentimental. But these meanings are not recorded until the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively: earlier in the word’s life it referred to a medicinal remedy or antidote.
Etymonline tells us treacle first entered English from Old French in the 14th century. It took several steps to get there, beginning (as far as we can establish) with the Proto-Indo-European root *ghwer-, meaning “wild”. This led to Latin ferus and ferox, which gave us fierce, feral, and ferocious. (The asterisk means *ghwer- is not attested in written sources, but has been reconstructed theoretically by etymologists.)
*Ghwer– also gave rise to the Greek word thēr, meaning “beast” or “wild animal”, whence the diminutive thērion – a word Aristotle used to refer to vipers. We see the same root in Therapoda (“beast feet”), a category of dinosaurs that includes Tyrannosaurus, and in Megatherium (“giant beast”), a huge extinct sloth. From thērion came thēriakos (adj.) “of a wild animal”, which led to thēriakē “antidote for poisonous wild animals”.
Latin borrowed this as theriaca, which became *triacula in Vulgar Latin. From this we get Old French triacle “antidote”, subsequently imported into Middle English and later to become treacle. Treacle was used especially against venomous bites such as snakes’ – the remedy often included snake flesh – then gradually the word’s meaning shifted from antidote to general cure or prophylactic. Sir Thomas More mentions “a most strong treacle against those venomous heresies”. Eventually the medicinal connotations faded.
Every word is a character in its own complex narrative: an often intricate past that bears little on everyday usage. Our humble treacle has no obvious connection to the beasts and their poisons that constitute its heritage – like classes of animals that share a distant ancestor but long ago diverged into radically different creatures. But by tracing its story back through the centuries from one country and language to the next, we may add spice to the next time we pour treacle in the kitchen.Email this Post