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Friday, December 18, 2015

What molasses teach us about language change



It's the time of year when you may be dusting off your gingerbread recipe, and therefore rummaging in your cupboard to see if you have any molasses (possibly left over from last year).

This crucial ingredient in gingerbread has an interesting history. The Portuguese word for it is melaço, derived from the Latin mellaceus (honey-like). The English borrowed the Portuguese word in the 16th century, but they borrowed the plural form melaços, since molasses is actually the "dregs" or "leftovers" of raw sugar. In 1870, it was correct to say, "The Americans are all fond of molasses, using them regularly at breakfast and supper to their buckwheat cakes and waffles". But now "molasses" is treated as a singular, except perhaps in parts of the southern and central US.

Is molasses singular or plural for you?

It's not that unusual for words that entered the language as a plural to become singular (or vice versa). "Data" and "media" are good examples which some people complain about. Yet no one complains about "molasses" or "stamina" (originally the plural of the word "stamen".)

In British English, what we North Americans call "molasses" is more commonly called "treacle", a word which, fascinatingly, is derived from a Greek word meaning "poisonous reptile". But more about that next week.

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.