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Troubles with Syllabi

April 24, 2013

Some of the faculty members who work with me this week got into that tired argument again over whether the plural of syllabus is correctly “syllabuses” or “syllabi.”  (I think I’d said “syllabuses” out loud in a conversation earlier, and just a few minutes after others had overheard this phrase of mine their argument was full blown.) I don’t really want to continue the debate here.

But wouldn’t we like to see some of what’s behind the English word, these English words? How Greek and how Latin? How fake and how real?

How right our uses of them and how wrong? How educated and how pretentious? How novel and how historical?


Here’s what the google ngram viewer shows us of how others before us have varied in the uses of them in print, the plurals never ever nearly as popular as that singular and those two used in equal measure only but a few moments in time:


Here’s what a few blogging experts say about the phrases.  For example, here’s a medieval philosopher, a former literary editor, a part-time tv commentator, a widely published essayist and poet, and “[t]he author of bestselling Kindle Singles,” Dr. Joseph Bottum starting off a post “Loose Language” (my emphases):

The plural of syllabus is syllabi. Or is it syllabuses? Focuses and foci, cactuses and cacti, funguses and fungi: English has a good set of these Greek and Latin words—and pseudo-Greek and Latin words—that might take a classical-sounding plural. Or might not. It kind of depends.

There’s pretension, no doubt, in using fancy plurals: a hangover from the days when class distinction could be measured by the remnants of a classical education. But we’ve all been carefully trained to mock such pretensions (on the grounds, as near as I can tell, that it’s terribly lower class to affect the traits of the upper class). And the most prominent use of such plurals nowadays is for comic effect, puncturing a stuffy occasion.

And then there’s linguist Dr. Mark Liberman replying in a blogpost “Bottum’s plea”; it concludes (again my emphases added):

So the debate has never been about whether there are or should be any rules of usage, or even about whether linguists should help people to figure out what those rules are, relative to a given context or style of speech or writing.  The contested question is what credence to give to the “rules” that self-appointed experts attempt to impose on the rest of us, especially in cases where these “rules” are inconsistent with the practice of elite writers, and are justified by illogical appeals to logic, historically false appeals to history, or unsupported assertions about ambiguity and other aspects of readers’ uptake.

Is the “will of custom” sometimes equivocal?  Of course; the mansion of the English language has many rooms.  Is it appropriate to limit this variation by imposing a “house style” on particular publications? Sure, if you want to. Will terrible things happen if your favorite style guide fails to constrain some optional choice, like “syllabuses” vs. “syllabi”? Surely not.

And Liberman had referenced history in an earlier post “What’s the plural of syllabus?”  At least, he’s shown how he at one point believed the following as he appeals to the logic of the assertions of the unnamed compilers and editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (and once more I emphasize):

The thing is, the word is a fake to start with, a misinterpretation due to scribal error. Here’s what the OED sez:

Now I’m writing my own blogpost. I’m merely a linguist with but a Master o  f Arts in the discipline, just dabbling in statistically significant data of human subject research called socio- linguistics. Not much of an authority myself, Dr. J. K. Gayle holds the most advanced degree in English, in classical rhetoric, while working more professionally with post-puberty learners of English as a language and their teachers and confessing to chronically private interests in how any of us ever learns “English.” (I have my mother to thank for encouraging me.)  So here’s my own rather subjective emphasized read of “what the OED sez:”


My eye is drawn to the alleged mere connections from our English “syllabus” to the ancient Greek’s “συλλαμβάνειν, to put together, collect.”

I am as fascinated by the OED editor’s collection of early quotations of the in print uses of this word and its English meanings.  Take a look for yourself (if you’ll pardon once again my emphases):


The question we must quickly ask is whether Taylor calling a syllabus a collection in 1667 was a mistake, the appropriation of a fake and graecized Latin word, a misinterpretation, a spurious deduction? Was he using bad English way back then? Why then does the OED editor choose to include that now? Am I asking too many questions?

Let’s take a look at other dictionary makers’ look at the Greek word allegedly causing all of the confusion. Click here for the full entry on συλλαμβάνω and collection of uses by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott. The old verb in Greek is not too far off from the newer English noun syllabus, is it? “The syllabus, including [collected] links to lecture notes and homework assignments, can be found here,” writes Dr. Liberman and his co-instructor here.

I’d like the end this post with uses of forms of syllabus or the like (may we call these syllabuses or syllabi?) that we may find not yet collected, though they do exist somewhere between the Liddell-Scott and OED entries and well before the google ngram records and our own various contemporary uses of such “English.”

These are translational uses of the old Greek forms. They are generative. They are not easily contained or collected by our expert opinions about which is fake and what must be true.

The first is from the very first use of the Greek phrase in question by the translator(s) in Alexandria, Egypt, rendering the Hebrew Bible into Hellene.  It’s the Greek Genesis 4:1 –

Αδαμ δὲ ἔγνω Ευαν τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ
καὶ συλλαβοῦσα ἔτεκεν τὸν Καιν
καὶ εἶπεν ἐκτησάμην ἄνθρωπον διὰ τοῦ θεοῦ

It’s the first recorded “conception,” the conceiving of the first human being by his mother.

The second syllabus-related Greek phrase I’d like to end this post with is from the New Testament. It’s from the gospel of Luke, itself sort of a syllabus or a collection of the accounts of the gospel on hand. Before I say more, let me just announce this (as if any of us needs to hear it):  these two syllabi, or syllabuses, have been the cause of many troubles (and I link to my own elsewhere-blogged troubles with the plural of that last word below). Now, here’s the announcement of the immaculate conception as a unique instance of what we tend argue over as fake or as real as spurious or as historical as literary or not in our collections of understandings (as syllabi). Here’s Luke 1:31 –

Καὶ ἰδού συλλήψῃ ἐν γαστρί
καὶ τέξῃ υἱόν
καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν

18 Comments leave one →
  1. April 24, 2013 10:11 am

    My rambling post went on long enough. So in this comment I want to add a few things about the Greek variants of συλλαμβάνω being ambiguous.

    As noted, the Liddell-Scott compilations of uses includes multiple meanings (VI. sets to be exact). The LXX and the NT uses of the Greek verb in only the two respective instances I gave follow the L-S meaning number IV (a meaningful use by scientist Aristotle and the same use by scientist Hippocrates):

    of females, conceive, Arist.HA582a19, GA727b8, Sor.1.28, etc.; “ἐν γαστρί” Hp.Aph.5.46; “ξυλλαβοῦσα τὴν γονήν” Id.Steril.220; of the womb, “ς. τὸ σπέρμα” Arist.HA583b29, al., cf. Luc.VH1.22: but συνειληφυῖα τοῦ τεκεῖν near to be delivered, LXX 1 Ki.4.19.

    The LXX translator(s), I might add, did not have to use συλλαβοῦσα for the Hebrew verb וַתַּ֙הַר֙. In fact, for Hagar’s conceiving of Ishmael in 16:5 (הָרָ֔תָה), there is no συλλαμβάνω but only ἐν γαστρὶ.

    Hebrew seems, at least in the Bible, to be more consistent and to be less ambiguous for the phrase in question. Where else is it used differently, not for “conception” of a child in a woman’s womb?

    Now, when I use the Latinate English conception, I’m immediately using a phrase that is ambiguous and metaphorical. I can conceive of using this word in contexts that have nothing to do with mothers.

    So the Greek συλλαμβάνω is ambiguous. So is the Latin concipiō. But not so or at least less so the Hebrew הָרָה.

    What’s the big deal? Well, the ambiguities come from the metaphorical nature of the word. We might say “literally” that συλλαμβάνω and that concipiō both can mean to “take together, to collect together, to gather together” and to “take to oneself/absorb/conceive/imagine/understand.” These meanings, as an image, carry across other meanings to other contexts. (Jerome, for the Vulgate, for Genesis 4:1 and 16:5, had no trouble using this ambiguous Latin word for the less ambiguous Hebrew word. Likewise, he used the same ambiguous Latin word for the nearly equally ambiguous Greek word in Luke 1:31.) We should say again that neither the Latin nor the Greek only has to do with empregnation and gestation and conception of babies in some technical sense.

    When we use syllabus today things are much more technical. much less ambiguous, and so don’t we feel we need to get things right (and not wrong) about it and its plural (as if there must be only one plural form, and the right one)?

  2. April 24, 2013 1:43 pm

    An anecdotal statistic — I just now searched my e-mail archive back to 2004. The form “syllabi” shows up in 67 e-mail threads. The form “syllabuses” shows up exactly one — in this very BLT post (I have BLT posts automatically e-mailed to me.) So, among academics at least (I work as a professor) I suspect that “syllabi” is the more commonly used form; even though “syllabuses” would be theoretically more correct.

    Since the OED attempts to be a descriptive, not prescriptive, dictionary, the editors try to collect all major uses of words, with early exemplar uses (including historical uses). The editor must have been convinced that “syllabus” was sometimes used in English to mean “collection,” and that Taylor was an early example of this.

    I find it significant that OED did not include the sort of frank note for “syllabi” that it includes for “octopi”:

    The plural form octopodes reflects the Greek plural; compare octopod n. The more frequent plural form octopi arises from apprehension of the final -us of the word as the grammatical ending of Latin second declension nouns; this apprehension is also reflected in compounds in octop- : see e.g. octopean adj., octopic adj., octopine adj., etc.

    (I have only rarely heard the most theoretically correct form “octopodes”; I myself usually use “octopuses”; although I also say “syallbi.”)

    I think a more interesting fight is the struggle between “data” and “datum” — at least I never hear anyone say “datas.” But it is tricky. Consider the emerging form “big data” which can refer to the “big data” movement (singular). I do not think I have ever heard anyone say “big data are”; although constructions like “big data is” are quite common.

  3. April 24, 2013 2:07 pm

    It is quite uncomfortable for me to say “syllabuses”: “ˈsɪləbəsɪz” — the combination of the stressed “ɪ” sound followed by two schwas followed by an unstressed “ɪ” is difficult for me — a tongue-twister.

    On the other hand, although I pronounce “octopus” as “ˈɑktəpəs”, when I form the plural “octopuses” that written “u” becomes a “ʊ” sound: “ˈɑktəpʊsɪz” — much easier to say

  4. April 24, 2013 2:40 pm

    In Google Reader, for the subscriptions I have, there is exactly the same pattern as you find in your email when comparing “syllabi” and “syllabuses.” Only my post and the ones I refer to in my post have the latter; the vast majority of blog writers I read use the former.

    On the OED, my only real objection is the editors’ conjecture (as fact) that our English syllabus is a false derivative from “συλλαμβάνειν, to put together, collect.” It would be an interesting study to review the different uses noted by the Google Ngram Viewer from 1890 through 2008 that refer to a thing or things “put together” or “collected.”

    During that time period, it should be clear how from around 1944 to around 1992, “syllabuses” was more used than “syllabi.”

    As for “data” I don’t hear “datas” ever. But I do hear and read much more often “datums.” Notice how often these have been published:

    As for pronunciations, I have no difficulty saying “syllabuses” but I am conditioned to see at least raised eyebrows when I say it. I do agree with you about the ease in saying “octopuses” as “ˈɑktəpʊsɪz.” But do you find it easier to say “Jesuses” or “Jesi”?

  5. Dana Ames permalink
    April 24, 2013 3:34 pm


    the “immaculate conception” is a doctrine of the Catholic Church that officially dates back to the mid-1800s and is about Mary’s conception, not that of Jesus. According to that teaching, by the work of God, *Mary* was conceived without the stain/macula of Original Sin (in order for Jesus not to inherit it in his flesh later).

    (FYI, EO has no such teaching about Mary, and we have a very different understanding of “original sin” to begin with…)


  6. April 24, 2013 4:22 pm

    You are absolutely correct, and I believe that those in the Catholic Church who hold to the dogma of Mary’s immaculate conception must agree that the prophecy from the angel in Luke 1:31 (which I’ve quoted above) is subsequent to his announcement in Luke 1:28 (and perhaps in Luke 1:30b), from which the doctrine may be derived. My language was quick and sloppy. To slow it down and clean it up, please let me revise: “here’s the announcement [right after the announcement(s)] of the immaculate conception.” I suppose I could say more about this being also one of the announcements of the virginal conception, as if that would be less troublesome to blog about.

    (I so very much appreciate your clarifying the difference in the teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The difference is substantial and significant, and it’s always helpful to hear from you!)


  7. April 24, 2013 4:44 pm

    I’m not sure that I can recall saying “Jesuses” — of course, it is a possible construction, but I’m not sure it is in my working vocabulary.

    Plurals of proper nouns tend to be dominated by the rule that the plural is usually pronounced the same way as the possessive: e.g. “Jesus’s” vs “Jesuses” or “Joshua’s” vs “Joshuas.”

    The forme that constantly confuses me is genie/genii and jinni/jinn, because it seems that two different forms of singular/plural are almost opposite each other (because one form comes from the Latin, and the other form comes from Arabic).

  8. April 24, 2013 5:03 pm

    I’m not sure it is in my working vocabulary

    I’m not much of a Chomskyan linguist. And yet I think he’s on to something in his assertions that “normal discourse regularly consists of novel utterances.”

    And our conversation here is somehow reminding me of “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus” announced earlier in the year and of the “Octopus’s garden in the shade” still sung about since Ringo Starr invented it.

  9. April 24, 2013 8:05 pm

    That “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” papyrus has completely dropped out of sight since the forgery allegations, hasn’t it? I thought at some point we were going to get some rigorous lab results. Those results are awfully slow in being announced.

  10. April 25, 2013 6:13 am

    Karen L. King, who first brought forward that “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” fragment, seems to be “On Leave / Spring term 2013” and is perhaps working on the testing (or leaving it until a bit later).

  11. Dana Ames permalink
    April 25, 2013 4:32 pm

    Well, Kurk, everyone but the Catholics would disagree that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception could be derived from those Lukan passages. “Favored one” does not necessarily mean that Mary is some other kind of human than the rest of us.

    Frankly, the way you have expressed it in original and revision is confusing. “Virginal conception” would have been more accurate, and, as you say, less troublesome. Most Protestants don’t know the difference between them, and I fear the clarity has been lost in your attempts at subtlety. A “drive-by” reader, ignorant of the difference, would remain ignorant. Clarity, my boy, clarity! Some of us are bright enough, but don’t quite catch the subtleties you see without a little more explanation…

    I do appreciate your kindness, and also your ruminations on the LXX – there is much clarity for me there, as, you know, the LXX is “my” bible 🙂

    If you have time, you might listen to Jeannie (Eugenia) Constantinou’s bible studies, “Search the Scriptures” podcast on Ancient Faith Radio. She has a multitude of letters after her name, and is a Greek-speaker. Recent interview with Keven Allen, also to be found at AFR, has a lot of discussion about the Orthodox view of canonicity of scripture, which might interest you.


  12. April 25, 2013 6:04 pm

    🙂 I’ve already confessed to using language that was quick and sloppy. And now you want me to continue to clarify. Let me first say that I’m with you in a great deal of appreciation for the Septuagint – and yet your commitment to the LXX is far greater than mine. Quick question: do you have an LXX bound together with the NT as a single volume? Did you see our discussion around this related to a post here? I am very much grateful to you for your recommendation to me to learn more about the Orthodox view of the scripture and that canon, from Jeannie (Eugenia) Constantinou.

    Let me just add that I look forward to learning more, the things you’re hoping to show here. I’ve found the interview and have read it through once and the podcasts and will listen as much as I can. Dr. Constantinou certainly expresses a view of the LXX reception history (compared with the Hebrew Bible) that’s a good bit different from how I understand it. (And as I listen, to learn more, I did google “Dr. Jeannie Constantinou syllabus” to see if I could find one of hers. Well, I found another professor’s teaching comparative religion, which I also find interesting.)

    So now to be clear: I’m not trying to recite doctrine of any particular group. I am interested in how – when it is read together with the Greek Genesis 4:1 – Luke 1:31 or perhaps a reader of it is able to make Mary into a “the second Eve” or “the last Eve.” This is not too different from what Paul – in 1 Corinthians 15:45 – makes Jesus into: “the second or last Adam” (with ὁ ἔσχατος Ἀδὰμ). I cannot really claim that Paul’s writings are clear either, however. Is this not clear: An immaculately conceived Mary conceiving as a virgin an immaculately conceived Jesus (with no sin imputed by the first Adam or the first Eve) are rather striking doctrines? The LXX and the NT read together, in some places, in some ways, seems to allow for the arguments. Do know – and I really should be clear – that I am interested in the literary and in the rhetoric in these texts. How authors and translators construct views and how readers and audiences are influenced by them is just fascinating – to me anyway. As mentioned, my post rambles and only comes to this common ambiguous Greek phrase referring to these two unique mothers as I’m trying to establish how sloppy certain dictionary makers and linguists reading them can be. The social-language, the rhetoric of this, is intriguing.

    Thank you, Dana.


  13. Dana Ames permalink
    April 25, 2013 9:59 pm

    “Is this not clear: An immaculately conceived Mary conceiving as a virgin an immaculately conceived Jesus (with no sin imputed by the first Adam or the first Eve)…”

    Yes, that’s very clear! Might need a preface, something like, “If we take the Catholic view,…” -because Protestant’s won’t hear, even if they know the difference. The “immaculate conception” angle is indeed interesting, but isn’t necessary to make your point. I’m biased, it’s true, but I did spend the first 20 years of my life as a Catholic, and so know a few things from that angle.

    And most Catholics and Protestants don’t know that there is a different view – actually the Greek patristic/EO view – that Adam’s sin is not imputed to the rest of humanity. Death, rather, is what we inherit from Adam. Living in the world as it is, we sin, which feeds death, which calls forth sin, etc. etc. (Heb 2.14-15), but the only sin we are “responsible for” is our own. A good (very) short treatment of the EO view is to be found here:

    Click to access da42e6049df1d08bff1865c1ac19e759.pdf

    If you are truly interested in learning about EO, you could really do no better than to read the blog of Fr Stephen Freeman,

    Yes, I get that you’re drawing forth the wordplay, and that’s very intriguing to me. Really fills out the *meaning* – which is, I think, what we’re after. Some of your observations make me smile… The reception history would indeed be a different thing for you, considering the ecclesiology that has been familiar to you.

    So finally, I do not know of a bound-together LXX and NT in English. Such a critter could probably be obtained in Greece, though, and of course it would be in Greek. However, this project, which I “mentioned” a while ago to Suzanne, is ongoing, and I’ll be very happy when it’s ready.

    Hope you are having a lovely spring.


  14. April 26, 2013 7:21 am

    Dana, Thank you for your interacting with the observations of the post here, the Greek wordplay in particular. On EO, you’ve also given additional information, which I’ll review. Many thanks for reminding us of the English translation called the “Eastern / Greek Orthodox Bible.” I followed your final link and was disappointed that there’s no clear statement up yet specifying which books are and are not included in the OT canon. But I was most surprised — given Constantinou’s MT belittling comments on behalf of EO in the interview — how the editors of the EOB are so eager, implicitly, to include the Hebrew Bible as authoritative:

    The Old Testament (in progress) is based on the Greek text of the Old Testament (Septuagint / LXX) with all major Masoretic and Dead Sea Scroll variants documented in the footnotes. See Zephaniah (Sofonias) as a sample. For reasons documented in the comprehensive introductory section, the EOB also provides the Hebrew / Masoretic versions (WEB) of Job, Jeremiah and Esther.

  15. Dana Ames permalink
    April 26, 2013 12:37 pm

    Hmm… I didn’t find Constantinou’s comments to be belittling; I’m sorry they struck you that way. Remember that interview was for a general audience. Any good Orthodox translator would definitely consult the MT, because what we’re after is meaning, and if the meaning is clearer in the MT – and consistent with O. interpretation otherwise – then the MT word/passage is what we should use. This is the opinion of Fr Tom Hopko, former Dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary, and I agree with him; I think Constantinou would too, if asked about it directly. She’s quite approachable, and answers her email.

    The thing is, EO doesn’t think of scripture as “authoritative” in the same way Protestants do (and neither does scripture stand *opposed to* Tradition, as with Catholics). That’s just not a category we use when we talk about scripture. Also, because of various influences and values, the Protestant Tradition 😉 sees each verse of the bible as being equal in value, or “weight.” In EO, all scripture is important, but some parts are more important that others. And all scripture text is to be interpreted through the lens of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ; that is where one stands, looking back at the OT and forward to the rest of the NT. This is counterintuitive to us westerners, who want to start at the beginning and proceed in systematic fashion to the end.

    Here is a comparison chart listing what is considered “canonical”:

    Click to access BibleBooksChart.pdf

    A couple of posts by Fr Stephen Freeman (referenced above) might help:

    Remember that Fr Stephen is writing from his vantage point (including growing up generic Baptist in the South, years as an Episcopal priest, undergrad study of biblical languages, and postgrad work with Hauerwas…). He has also written more than once that the holiest person he has ever known was his Baptist father-in-law.


  16. April 27, 2013 7:04 am

    Comments like the following I find somewhat demeaning of the Jewish community with strange implications for the Christian community:

    What were they using to preach that Jesus was the Messiah? The Septuagint, because that was the Bible of the people. The Jews in the diaspora did not know Hebrew. So they preached and they gained a few converts. They created a separate community of Jewish Christians, Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah.

    It’s as if ignorance of the Hebrew Bible is how one must account for “Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah.” And what follows is the suggestion that the MT is some cause against Christianity. But, as you note, these subtle binaries (of believers vs. non-converts; of the LXX as the true reflection of the Hebrew vs. the MT as substantially corrupt) do not square with what – as you put it – “Any good Orthodox translator would definitely” do. Even so, on the basis of this version of history, putting forth the Septuagint as the prototypical and ideal authority (even if all of the texts are to be “interpreted through the lens of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ”) seems a stretch to me.

    You know my own Southern Baptist background and may even know that both my own father and my father in law have been ministers in this denomination; so you do get me interesting in Stephen Freeman’s conversions.

  17. Dana Ames permalink
    April 27, 2013 1:34 pm

    I see what you mean. I don’t believe Constantinou meant that ignorance of the HB is what accounts for Jews believing in Jesus as the Messiah. Again, she was speaking to a very general audience, likely to quite a few with Protestant backgrounds, who are very familiar with the MT in English but know nearly nothing about the LXX, and bring a Protestant understanding of what the bible is for – which is not the same understanding as in Orthodoxy. I think if you were to converse with her she would be able to meet you at your level on this. I know she has great respect for Jewish learning, present and past.

    I visited the church she and her husband were planting a couple of years ago, and met a retired Jewish professor of Classical Greek who lived in the next town and would come to the Liturgy from time to time simply to be able to hear the Greek he loved, (It was about the only place he could hear it in western Riverside County… horse country!) Everyone knew he was not interested in converting, and nobody was trying to “evangelize” him. I was sitting at the table with them, and he and Jeannie had a very interesting and technical discussion, as old friends.


  18. May 2, 2013 7:24 am

    I visited the church … and met a retired Jewish professor of Classical Greek who lived in the next town and would come to the Liturgy from time to time simply to be able to hear the Greek he loved

    Your personal story here is fascinating. My own experience is that ancient Greek that is classical and ancient Greek that is rhetorical and ancient Greek that is philosophical and ancient Greek that is scientific and ancient Greek that is Koine and ancient Greek that is various religious / biblical are often researched, studied, taught, appropriated, and applied by individual groups in isolation of one another. Or when, say, a rhetoric scholar gets adventurous enough to see what a religion scholar (or more rarely a practitioner of religion) is doing with the old Greek, then the learning tends to go in just one direction. Did Jeannie and her husband ever venture over to that next town to hear professors of Classical Greek? More of this cross-discipline study and appreciation of the language(s) can only benefit all, I believe.

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