Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Language of Confusion: Shugar

Isn’t the word sugar weird? And sure? We pronounce it “sh” but there’s no H! They’re dogs, but they’re playing poker!

Anyway, what is the reason behind this mysterious fit of pronunciation? Or is it just one of the many things that was pronounced one way a thousand years ago and people kept it even though the spelling changed and it became nonsensical (because that never happens)?

Sugar—the substance, not the word—has been traced back to New Guinea (north of Australia) sometime around 9000 BCE. It spread to India around 500 BCand stayed a closely guarded secret until Arab expansion over a thousand yearslater in 642 CE. That’s how important it was. People kept their lips zipped until they were unzipped by force! And it didn’t spread to Europe until five hundred years after that, during the Crusades.

Being the spice that controls the universe, the word stayed surprisingly similar among most languages. It begins with a s or z sound, has a hard consonant like k or g in the middle, and has an r sound at the end. It ranges from zucker in German, to sheqer in Albanian, seker in Turkish, azucar in Spanishand sukari in Swahili. Yes, I know these are all in the Europe/Asia area. I haven’t learned non-Latin letters. Yet.

In English, the word sugar first appeared in the late thirteenth century, adapted from the Old Frenchsucre  and traced back to the Medieval Latinsuccarum and the Arabic sukkar. It might go back further, but because the Arabs were the first to spread the substance, it’s possible their word also took. In Indonesia  and Malaysia, where the substance was first cultivated, both languages use the word gula for sugar.

But that leaves us with the mysterious “sh” sound. In Old French, sure is sure or seur. That would have been pronounced like “se-yure,” and English kept the y influenced pronunciation. They just softened it to a “sh.” Apparently, the same thing happened with sugar.

Etymology Online for the information on sugar and sure.
John Garger’s article at Bright Hub
Google Translate for its many variations of sugar.
For the history of sugar:
Florida Crystalstimeline on the history of sugar.
Essortment’s page on the history of sugar.
Sugar Knowledge International Ltd.’s page on the history of sugar.

And of course, The Simpsonsfor giving us about eleven laugh-full years. Plus another fourteen or so.


  1. Now, if I only could stay away from the stuff (the sugar, not the word).

  2. I'm with Liz on this. Less sugar and more artificial sweetener. But I love your analysis of the word and the stuff behind it.

  3. I have a feeling that the history of sugar and the history of my weight problem are closely related.

  4. Mmmmmm, doughnuts.

    That's an interesting lesson on the word.

    Have a great weekend.

  5. Mmmm, sugar....

    I take at least six spoons with my tea.


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