Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 20 August 2005

A Lexicographer writes

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To Sir John Hall, Bt (not to be confused with the other Sir John Hall, Bt, the magician), I owe the most satisfying defining statement I have seen for a long time: ‘The chief use of vipers is for the making of treacle.’

Sir John did not write that sentence himself, for his subject was the Golden Syrup tin. The declaration about vipers came from the Natural History (1693) of Sir Thomas Blount, Bt, whose wife bore him five sons and nine daughters before he died, aged 47.

I stumbled across that in following up something Sir John wrote about the ‘strong’ in the Golden Syrup motto having a subsidiary reference to a ‘wild beast’, from the Greek for which the English word treacle derives.

We all know about the treacle well in Alice, and the real treacle well at Binsey, and the verse in Jeremiah (viii:22) according to Coverdale’s translation: ‘I am hevy and abashed, for there is no more triacle in Galaad’ (which the Authorised Version makes a question, ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?’). So we know treacle used to be the name for something medicinal. The OED tells us more specifically if less demotically that it meant something alexipharmic — an antidote to poison. And there it is, already in the year 1000, in the Saxon Leechdom, in the form tyriac.

The Greek it came from was theriake (antidosis understood), feminine of theriakos, ‘pertaining to a wild beast’, ther. But I do not think that even the most assured Greek physician would prescribe his theriac, or theriacle, as an antidote to the bite of a lion. Reptiles or snakes would be the thing, hence Blount’s remark. For a little of the blameworthy beastie would be included in its antidote.

In English, treacle was in use in various medical senses (wormseed treacle being applied to plants thought to be anthelminthic, or remedial against intestinal worms) and metaphorically (Milton wrote of the ‘sovran treacle of sound doctrine’) for centuries before it acquired a new reference, to raw sugar or molasses. The first printed attestation is from 1694, in a reference to ‘common treacle’, which suggests it was in use orally.

There is a technical difference between molasses and treacle, but that has not stopped people using the words equivalently. And a great improvement on black treacle for some purposes was Golden Syrup, which a master at Eton used as a mnemonic for the young Hall to remember that ther is a wild beast.