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Americans prefer to call it molasses but treacle, our current form of the old word triacle, is the usual British name for the sticky, sweet stuff. Many British children encounter the name first in the treacle well in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The older form of the word is remembered in the apothecaries’ term triacle, but it was originally used for something very different — an antidote to the venom of a snake or insect.

This word came through French and Latin from Greek theriake, meaning an antidote against a poisonous bite, which has its origin in therion, a wild beast. Herbal remedies against such bites often contained alkaloids and so tasted bitter — it was common to sweeten them with honey to make them easier to swallow. English apothecaries changed over to black treacle as the sweetener when it began to be available in the Middle Ages.

The word was often used in a sense not so very different to that of balm or salve, some fragrant ointment or preparation used to heal or soothe the skin. In fact, the question in the book of Jeremiah in the Bible: “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there?” was translated by Miles Coverdale in 1535 using triacle instead of balm. Even earlier, Chaucer uses triacle in the sense of a salve in his Canterbury Tales: “Christ, which that is to every harm triacle”.

By the end of the seventeenth century, triacle had come to mean the molasses itself rather than the herbal remedy; by then the vowel had became slurred, the word dropped from three syllables to two, and it was respelled in the modern form, treacle.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 14 Jul. 2001

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 14 July 2001.