What do you call the sticky liquid that you put on flapjacks?
Syrup, a word that comes from the Old French sirop. Syrup appears in various forms across Western European languages, including medieval Latin siropus, Dutch siroop, and Spanish jarope (which refers to a medicinal potion, it’s sweeter counterpart, ajarabe is now obsolete).
All of these forms are descended from Arabic sharbat, which is from the verb shariba “to drink”. (We will revisit this in a moment.)
Syrup is defined by the OED as “thick, sweet liquid; especially one consisting of a concentrated solution of sugar in water”. In addition to its role as a culinary sweetener, syrup was also used as medicine (or, really, a vehicle for medicines) and it shows up in English writing as early as 1392.
There are different kinds of syrup, maple syrup from trees (a resource first tapped by Native Americans), corn syrup from breaking down corn starch with hydrochloric acid (yikes), and cane syrup from sugar cane.
There are a variety of names for what we think of as syrup, including long sweetening (used in opposition to short sweetening, which is crystalized sugar), molasses, treacle, sugar tree syrup, tree syrup, tree molasses, and ribbon cane syrup.
The word molasses probably came into English by way of the Portuguese melaços, the plural form of melaço (ultimately from Latin mell “honey”). Molasses was adopted in this plural form, but is construed by Americans as singular (except in the southern and central US, where it is frequently used as a plural).
The singular form, molass, is a now-obsolete term used in Scotland for a “liquor distilled from molasses”. A 1772 quote complains about the thousands of private stills in Edinburgh that were “constantly employed” in preparing this “poisonous liquid”.
Molass can also (though rarely) be heard as another American term for molasses (or syrup).
The syrup~molasses connection is all in the production of the sweetener.
To make cane syrup, you start by crushing the sugar cane and boil the juices. This promotes the crystalization of sugars.
The result of this first boiling is raw sugar and a thick, sticky liquid called first molasses (also known as mild molasses, second molasses, or Barbados molasses), which, due to its high sugar content is very sweet. Boil it again and you have dark molasses, which has a more bitter taste now that more sugar has been removed. A third boiling results in blackstrap molasses, which is quite bitter, since even more of the sugar has been removed.
Blackstrap is a specifically American-devised term for the dark, third sugar-extraction stage syrup, black for its color and strap (most likely) from the Dutch word stroop (“syrup”). A 1918 quote from McCann’s Science of Eating refers to blackstrap as the “lowest by-product masquerading under the name of molasses”. Despite it’s “low” reputation, blackstrap actually has significant amounts of vitamins and minerals (it used to be used as a dietary supplement and still has a bit of a reputation as a cure-all). Blackstrap is often used as an addition to animal feed.
The term blackstrap can be heard in the northeastern US to refer to a beverage made with rum, molasses, and (sometimes) beer.
Treacle is another term for the syrup that results from sugar cane-boilings. Golden treacle (or golden syrup) from the first boiling, and dark treacle (or black treacle) from the second boiling.
During the Middle English era, you would have been given treacle as an antidote for a snakebite. The word treacle, in fact, is ultimately derived from the Greek θηριακός “pertaining to wild beasts or poisonous reptiles”.
If there is a difference between treacle and molasses, we Americans don’t see it. Apparently we are brazen about it.
Hall’s Modern English (published in 1873) notes that, “The very marked distinction between molasses and treacle is commonly ignored in America, where the latter is seldom heard”.
The folly continues, as we see the 1902 work of Greenough and Kittredge, Words and their Ways in English Speech, noting that, “‘Treacle’ is applied indifferently to the ‘spume of sugar’, to ‘maple syrup’, and to ‘molasses’”.
Remember how the ultimate ancestor of syrup is the Arabic sharbat? Well, sharbat (from shariba “to drink”) is also the etymological ancestor of sherbet. (Which makes sherbet and syrup cousins.)
It makes more sense than you might think if you take the idea of syrup as a “thick, sweet liquid” and and consider the original sense of sherbet, which is a “cooling drink of the East, made of fruit juice and water, sweetened, often cooled with snow”. My reasoning here is that syrup is something that you use as a base for a sweet drink (like simple syrup).
Several of the OED examples for sherbet refer to it as a drink, such a 1603 description from Knolles’ General History of the Turkes, “The guests dranke water prepared with sugar, which kind of drinke they call Zerbet”.
Obviously there are some variations in spelling.
The use of sherbet for a kind of drink continues in the UK, where if you asked for “a sherbet”, you would be given a “effervescing drink made of sherbet powder”.
Among American speakers, sherbet (also known by the pronunciation sherbert) is used casually as another name for sorbet.
Sorbet comes to English from French sorbet, which came from Italian sorbetto, which came from Turkish shorbet, which is, of course, another descendant of Arabic sharbat and shariba.
The move from iced fruit drink to frozen dessert also makes sense. A 1613 quote shows us how it works as it describes an icy sorbetta concoction as a “kinde of drinke made of Water, Suger, and iuyce of Lemonds, mixed with Amber and Muske”.
Musk? Surely not.
In the US, there is a technical distinction made between sherbet and sorbet, the former having 1-2% dairy content and the latter being only frozen fruit-water. Sorbet, then, is used as a synonym for Italian ice.
And, finally, we have shrub.
The Arabic verb shariba also gives rise to shrub, a “prepared drink made with the juice of orange or lemon (or other acid fruit), sugar, and rum (or other spirit)”. Shrub is further described in an 1861 quote as a US “cordial or syrup made with raspberry juice, with vinegar and sugar”.
And further further described in 1867 by Smyth’s Sailor’s Wordbook as a “vile drugged drink prepared for seamen who frequent the filthy purlieus of Calcutta”. (Well, how else would you expect something to be described in a sailor’s wordbook?)
So now we see the Middle Eastern base for a whole family of sweet things: syrup, sherbet, sorbet, and shrub. And we’ve thrown in a little molasses for our health. Cheers!