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I wonder how, if at all, treacly and syrupy in figurative use differ in meaning, register, connotation, or in some other way.

The figurative senses are frequently defined synonymously in dictionaries. For instance, Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary gives the figurative meaning of treacly as "something that is annoying because it is too sentimental", and that of syrupy as "disapproving : too romantic or emotional"; oxforddictionaries.com gives both meanings as "Excessively sentimental"; and the American Heritage Dictionary, 5th ed., gives both as "Cloyingly sweet or sentimental". (OED has no definition of figurative syrupy.)

An internet search yields multiple co-occurences in immediate proximity:

(E1) Either way, know this going in: This isn't your sort of generic, treacly, syrupy holiday special. (tvworthwatching.com)

(E2) I was most disheartened by Sandra Bullock’s win for The Blind Side, a treacly, syrupy overrated work ... (nhl.com)

(E3) ... almost everything about this film is positive, up until the point some people declare it treacly and syrupy sweet ... (filmjournal.com)

Are these uses entirely tautological?

  • In BrE, 'treacle' is what Americans call black treacle or molasses, so while it's thick and cloying, it isn't particularly sweet - it has more of a bitter taste. Syrup is of course incredibly sweet but is usually less thick and sticky than treacle. My opinion is that they're not entirely tautological when used as similes; others may disagree. – Charl E Oct 22 '18 at 8:20
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The OED gives

Syrup - A thick sweet liquid; esp. one consisting of a concentrated solution of sugar in water (or other medium, e.g. the juices of fruits).

and

Treacle - The uncrystallized syrup produced in the process of refining sugar; also sometimes extended to the uncrystallizable syrup that drains from raw sugar.

Since syrup is often a thinner, clearer liquid than treacle, which can be as black and thick as tar, this difference, if known, may influence figurative usage.

If pushed I might say that figuratively - based on the physical difference described above - something that is 'treacly' is something I cannot push through; that catches me; that is impassable. Something that is 'syrupy', on the other hand, is something cloyingly, toe-curlingly 'sweet'.

This said, I'm not sure how widely understood is the difference between the two. My own experience is that the two words are often confused. One of my favourite puddings used to be 'treacle' tart that was made with golden 'syrup'.

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