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Nir Stern

It’s 5.30pm and you’re still in the library. A self-imposed deadline is approaching fast and only a cup of coffee and some empty carbs could save you. Is the Buttery still open? Perhaps a puffed scone with some butter will come to the rescue, after all, what is the Buttery for if not a nice chunk of butter?

Ah! As you pass through the bicycle parking it is your inner classicist voice which starts badgering you: is ‘Buttery’ really derived from ‘butter’? Sounds too easy, probably a popular etymology!

Well friend, you are correct. But wait, there is more.

Your little classicist will, surely, be pleased to know that this little shop of nibbling goes all the way back to our (favorite?) Latin. Have no fear, though. Sadly, the relation to butter is meagre, but we are yet in the realm of sustenance.

Have you reached the Buttery yet? Why don’t you grab a butta which is, naturally, ‘a vessel for wine etc.’, or so the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources informs us. Unfortunately, you are more likely to end up with the ‘etc.’ than with wine, but you can still take a sip from your refreshing beverage.

As you make your way through your scone, or rather already the way back to the library(?), I’ll tell you that that this butta of yours has made its own way through bota to botaria in Late Latin. Refreshed with a new consonant, all that it needed was some vowel changes and it was almost there. Alors, who better than the French to change our ‘a’s to ‘e’s and bring us the boterie, et voilà! We’ve got a storeroom for provisions, especially ale and other alcoholic drinks (so the OED).

But wait, before you go back to editing your bibliography, the medieval dictionary has one more entry to suggest: butellaria, now directly meaning a storeroom (check it! s.v. 2). So, which is it? The long Francophile way, or the short (but, let’s face it probably somewhat French as well) Late Latin one? Hold on to your scones (especially if you’re trying to sneak them back into the library!) as the OED proves to be relativist: ‘Of multiple origins. Partly borrowing from Latin. Partly borrowing from French’ (s.v. Buttery, n.1).

Well, well, not all is lost: ‘the broadening in meaning from “storeroom for alcoholic drink” to “storeroom for provisions generally” is unsurprising, but may have been helped by association with (etymologically unrelated) Butter’. So at least we get to keep the butter… Even though we must admit, we’d rather they were selling vinum… Or rather, ale?

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