The Sylly Season

Yes, as the days of summer begin to wane, it’s time to get a bus out of its garage, refurbish the interior, and polish it up to convey the essence of a class for the fall. In other words, to prepare a syll-a-bus.

The syllabus is heir to a venerable tradition of typographical error. You might think it’s a simple Latin word like alumnus, but it’s not. It just looks that way.

In fact, its etymology is complicated. It takes the Oxford English Dictionary more than 150 words to explain that syllabus comes from a certain sillabos that in turn comes from sittybas. Some medieval scribe evidently didn’t notice the crosses on the Ts and read them as Ls.

So if we’re super correct, should we say we’re inviting students to sit in a sit-a-bus? Well, that’s a problem too, the OED goes on to say, because sittybas was created when some editors imagined that it must have come from Greek “from which a spurious σύλλαβος was deduced and treated as a derivative of συλλαμβάνειν to put together, collect (compare syllable).” But it’s not.

That’s just part of the OED entry. There’s more, but I’ll leave that to the experts in paleoetymology.

OK. Now, what do you call it when you have more than one syllabus? I mean, is it syllabi or syllabuses? The former is too pretentious, the latter too plebian. Either way, the word is likely to suffer from syll-abuse.

And what about the plural of bus, for that matter? Should it be buses? That makes it sound like abuses. Should it be busses? Well, who wouldn’t enjoy a buss more than a bus? But should you be thinking of kisses when you’re trying to concentrate on multipassenger vehicles? No, you can kiss that one goodbye.

So let’s just try to make the most of it. With busses all around, all aboard the silly bus!

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