So often, we don’t hear about protocols until they’ve been breached, as in recent efforts to control Ebola in the United States. It turns out, though, that protocols really may be the “glue” that holds it all together.

"Protocol." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Protocol.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


If we follow protocol back to its roots, we get a Greek expression for “first glued on”: protokollon, or πρωτόκολλον, a manuscript technology that was all about authorship and authenticity.

With MS. meaning “manuscript” and MSS., its plural, Walter Skeat explains:

[Protocol] meant, in Byzantine authors, orig. the first leaf glued on to MSS., in order to register under whose administration, and by whom the MS. was written; it was afterwards particularly applied to documents drawn up by notaries, because, by a decree of Justinian, such documents were always to be accompanied by such a first leaf or fly-leaf. It meant ‘first glued-on,’ i.e., glued on at the beginning.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is helpful for its clarity here: The “first leaf of a papyrus-roll, bearing the official authentication and date of manufacture of the papyrus.” If you’ve ever flipped through the front matter of a book to assemble your “Works Cited,” you’ll see that the tradition continues.

The word was rolled out into Latin, then French, where it took on senses of a “draft” of a document, a proto-table of contents, or, like docket, the “minutes” of a meeting. Specialized meanings–written formulas used in drawing up church documents, special provisions and etiquette in diplomatic proceedings, records of medical and scientific procedures–eventually propelled it as the “accepted or established code of behaviour” (OED) by 1915.

If we unglue protocol, we find two elements:

  1. The Greek protos (combining form, proto-, or πρωτο-), meaning “first” or “foremost.” We’ve seen the word before in protein. At root is the prodigiously prolific Proto-Indo-European *per-, with a base meaning of “forward” or “through.”
  2. The Greek kolla (κόλλα)“glue,” as you may suspect. The word lives on in science as colloid and collagen–and in art with collage, French for “pasting” or “gluing.”

Speaking of which, though your teacher will tell you not to eat your paste or glue, you kind of already are. Glue is from the Latin gluten, in wheat, rye, and barley products, though we might all now know it best by its absence. And paste originally referred to kneaded, moistened flour (Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology)–hence its close relationship to words like paste and pastry.

As for the deeper origins of kolla, I have found nothing certain. I wonder if it may be a regional term for tree tar or plant gum, which were used in some of the earliest glue technologies. But whatever the origin of kolla, “glue” turns out to be instructive: Some meanings of words stick while others fall off, making the history of a word quite the collage.

m ∫ r ∫