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The Guardian was a minor treasure-trove in early March 2015 for enquirers into matters of English language. An item in the Corrections and Clarifications column on Monday 2 March reported that grammar pedants (tactfully described there as “linguistic purists”) had been upset at the use of the phrase Snowden trove for the thousands of documents leaked by Edward Snowden. They asserted, and the Guardian’s style guide agrees, that trove may not be used on its own, but must always form part of the compound noun treasure-trove.

The idea that valuables that had been abandoned or hidden by persons unknown could be claimed by the state goes back at least to Roman times. The Latin was thesaurus inventus, which strikes modern non-Latinists as peculiar, since for us a thesaurus is a special form of dictionary, while to invent is to create something new. But thesaurus in Latin could mean a treasury and the concept of a book being a storehouse of knowledge has led to the word being used in English at least since the sixteenth century. And Latin inventus could as much mean discovered as invented.

The Latin thesaurus inventus continued to be used until the end of the medieval period. After the Norman Conquest it existed alongside the Anglo-Norman tresor trové. This was gradually Anglicised into treasure found. Legal English, with its liking for old French terms, preferred to turn it into English in a different way; a legal textbook of 1567 explained that valuable abandoned property belonged to the queen and was called treasure-trove. Since the concept was a legal one, this form ousted the other one.

Treasure-trove follows a pattern of compound terms derived from French in which the adjective follows the noun; others are governor-general, poet laureate, court-martial, heir apparent, letter patent and knight errant. Careful users of English, and the Guardian style guide, seem to be correct when they say that trove has no independent existence.

At least, until we start to look at the evidence.

People started to use trove by itself to mean a hoard or a valuable find at least as far back as the 1880s:

The value of her trove struck her, and she cast about for the best method of using it.

Plain Tales from the Hills, by Rudyard Kipling, 1888.

His breath came hot and fast as he gazed upon the trove; a queen’s ransom, a fortune incalculable even to its owner.

The Brass Bowl, by Louis Joseph Vance, 1907.

By the 1920s it was moderately common, though still not recognised by the linguistic authorities. When in 1950 Leonard Gribble published an anthology of tales for children under the title Story Trove, it clearly wasn’t regarded as hopelessly bad English. Shortly afterwards, this well-known example appeared:

The Wise may have good reason to believe that the halfling’s trove is indeed the Great Ring of long debate, unlikely though that may seem to those who know less.

The Fellowship of the Ring, by J R R Tolkien, 1954.

Nowadays it is unremarkable, though often expressing a broader sense of a hoard of intangible valuables (an Australian newspaper database, for example, is called simply Trove):

But that would have to assume that Sony executives are incredibly smart. The trove of their emails would strongly suggest that’s not the case.

Garden City Telegram (Kansas), 2 Jan. 2015.

It has to recognise that consumer services are generating a trove of data that’s valuable to us.

New Scientist, 24 Jan. 2015.

Language has moved on. Trove is now too widely used to be dismissed as bad English. Dictionaries include it (the Oxford English Dictionary has had an entry for it since 1989), though some refer the enquirer to treasure-trove. American ones are readier than British to accept that trove is now a noun and a valid abbreviated form of treasure-trove. The Guardian itself acknowledged this in its Corrections and Clarifications item: “Perhaps we should now accept that it’s a useful word on its own.” Indeed.

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