I’ve Stopped Creating Syllabi. Now I Create Syllabuses.

At some point, using “syllabi” as the plural of “syllabus” started to bother me.

Being “correct” about egg-headed words such as phenomenon/phenomena or criterion/criteria is among the most visible markers of education and class — and insufferable pedantry.

For instance, those who wear tinfoil hats while blogging from their parents’ basements are likely to wave their beer bottles and complain “The media is out to get me,” while those working in the media are likely to set down their wine glasses and sniff, “Actually, the media are out to get you.”

In the case of “syllabus,” few people other than academics are ever likely to encounter the word, much less find themselves wondering about the plural form, not to mention caring about its etymology.

As a newly-hired professor, faced for the first time with the task of having to write more than one syllabus, I might have felt the pressure to overcorrect — not unlike the way people who are new at public speaking might overuse “I” (as in “This is a momentous occasion for you and I.”) So I probably acquired the word “syllabi” without really thinking about it.

Words come into being in certain specific contexts.


You’re being a pedant-o-pus again, Daddy.

Shortly after my wife first told me she was pregnant, I was walking through a store and saw a cute little six-legged toy that tugged on my heartstrings with unexpected strength. The toy was called “Rainbow Hector.” Mashing up “Hector” with “octopus” and “hexagon,” I playfully started calling it a “hectopus.”

My wife started a family tradition of using “-pus” or “-opus” as an endearment (as in, “Are we being a grump-o-pus about bedtime, sweetie?” or “Are you being a pedant-o-pus again, Daddy?”).

After I bought several more of the same toy, I needed a plural. If I’m going to be pedantic while playing with a stuffed animal, I told myself at the time, then I’m going to be pedantic accurately.

I decided that the plural of hectopus would be hectopodes. I rejected “hectopi,” since the sad story of the invention of “octopi” involves the passing whimsy of prescriptive 18th-century grammarians bent on deploying Latin rules to standardize English, freeing it from irregularities that seemed unscientific and unmodern.

When the Romans needed to talk about octopuses, they borrowed the Greek word, but followed the rules for the Latin pes “foot,” which formed the plural as pedes “feet”. So, in Latin we have one octopes and several octopedes.

Fourth-declension Latin words (such as “census” or “coitus”) are still -us in the plural. Thus, we don’t talk about “censi” or “coiti”, we just form the plural according to the standard rules of English. (If a singular word ends in -us, we form the plural by adding “-es” instead of just “-s”.)

The missing piece seems to be, how did the Romans form the plural of “syllabus?”

It turns out that, in classical Latin, there never was a word “syllabus.”

Jeff Jeske explains that our English word syllabus comes from the greek sittuba, referring to a descriptive tab that hung down from the end of a rolled-up papyrus scroll. That word came into Latin as sittyba, which would (according to Language Log) form the plural as sittybes.

A movie set, demonstrating how scrolls were stored rolled up on their sides. The word “syllabus” is a corruption of the Greek word referring to the label that dangled off the end of a stored scroll. (Credit: imaginarymuseum.org)

According to In Rebus, in a single 2000-year-old document, when referring in passing to some library-related busywork he had delegated to his servants, the Roman orator Cicero sloppily borrowed a Greek word from the servant-class culture of literacy. He would have heard it from his trusted scribe, a Greek slave, skilled in the petty details of writing and book-keeping, the kinds of things that an important orator in Rome’s oral-based culture would likely dismiss as “all that geeky tech stuff.”

Some 1500 or so years later, casting about in classical literature for a word to mean a summary of a longer work, late medieval scholars picked up on Cicero’s usage. But Cicero hadn’t actually gotten the word right; either he misheard it, or he didn’t think it was worth the effort of double-checking, or someone who later transcribed his letters introduced the mistake.

Although a mere scribal error is likely responsible for the confusion, the varying spellings in Att. 4.4a , 4.5.3 and 4.8.2 may in fact ascend to Cicero’s manuscripts, with Cicero’s carelessness being the reason. The disregard for the social context may have contributed to the subsequent coining of the term syllabus in humanist Latin and some modern European languages. —In Rebus

So, “syllabus” is a made-up medieval Latin word, based on a mistake that either Cicero made or a scribe later introduced, in a passage where Cicero appropriated a Greek word for a concept foreign to Romans. Since Latin could form the plural in several different ways, there is no logical evidence to argue that “syllabi” is the correct plural. At best, foisting the -i ending upon “syllabus” does nothing to undo the butchering of Latin that created the word in the first place. At worst, enforcing the -i ending adds one mistake upon another.

If your goal is to enforce traditional rules in modern English, the only grammatically pure option is to reject “syllabus” in favor of the Greek “sittyba.” But at the college level, English departments aren’t exactly brimming with the kind of prescriptive grammarians who get red-faced about split infinitives. This does not mean that English scholars don’t care about grammar; it does mean that nowadays you are much more likely to encounter an English professor who is a descriptive grammarian — that is, someone who sees grammar as a collection of best practices used by the most effective, most celebrated writers. (After setting down a short list of strongly phrased adages for effective, ethical writing, George Orwell added, “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”)

Historically, as words become part of the English language, they shed their connections to their language of origin, and settle down to following English rules. The words “datum,” “criterion” and “apparatus” are at different stages in that process. The words “alumnus/alumni” (male) and “alumna/alumnae” (female) are an important part of university culture, but since Latin grammar is not a big part of the marketing and fund-raising departments who largely fuel graudates’ awareness of the term, I suspect that within a generation or two universities will drop the Latin endings, in favor of the more anglicized, domesticated “alum / alums.”

Like the many words added to the English language every year, “syllabus” is making its slow transition from foreign word to English word.

Using the professionally-accepted Latin plurals for “medium” and “phenomenon” is still a marker of education and class, so universities will probably keep those distinctions alive. The greater world outside academia has no particular need for the word “sylalbus,” whether singular or plural, so I doubt that anyone will be shunned or judged according to whether they use the pseudo-neo-retro Latin “syllabi” or the anglicized “syllabuses.”

Nobody can point to any logical reason why “syllabi” would be more correct than “syllabuses.” The linguists who would presumably know best about such things, and would care the most about the answer, all point to the muddied history of “syllabus” and shrug. Knowing that the word itself is a mistake kind of renders the whole question moot, but in the same kind of cool way that makes me like to think about Schroedinger’s cat or the cockatrice. (Or the griffin.)

A few years after the word “hectopus” was firmly embedded in my family culture, I realized that the Greek hecto- actually means “one hundred,” as in the metric hectare. So “hexapus” would have been a more accurate term for “six-footed”. But since my word came about because my kids and I needed a word for “a six-footed creature named Hector,” the linguistic etymology is only part of the formation of the word. I feel no need to “correct” the word we use for something that has been such a significant part of their lives.

Even though I’ve learned a few things about the “incorrect” history of the word, I don’t feel any urge to ditch the richness and specificity of “syllabus.”

It connotes so much more than “lesson plan” or “table of contents” or “summary.” Perhaps the bit of uncertainty I feel whenever I find my self in the unusual situation of having to use the plural is an artifact of the power and potential I associate with the word.

After all “cheese” is just a food; “more cheese” means more of the same, but “several cheeses” implies culture and bounty; it implies discrimination, taste, and plenty.

The “several syllabuses” that I still need to post this weekend suggest something more intellectually rewarding and culturally significant than an undifferentiated flood of “more paperwork.”

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