The Magic of Grammar

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Glamor/Glamour: a magical or fictitious beauty attaching to any person or object; a delusive or alluring charm.

Perhaps glamor is in the eye of the beholder, but in general, some things are felt to have it and others not. For example:

Names: Marilyn Monroe vs. Norma Jean Baker.
Occupations: actor vs. plumber.
Fields of study: psychology vs. grammar.

Outside a rarefied environment like an online site frequented by people who find it fascinating, what could have less glamor than grammar?

Etymologically speaking, however, grammar and glamor are sisters under the skin.

Scotsman Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) achieved international fame with his novels, many of which were set in his native Scotland and featured dialogue sprinkled with Scots dialect. One of the expressions he introduced to standard English was “to cast the glamour.” He was not the only literary Scotsman to include a bit of dialect in their writing. Here are OED citations from two of Scott’s countrymen:

1721   A. Ramsay Gloss. When devils, wizards or jugglers deceive the sight, they are said to cast glamour o’er the eyes of the spectator.

1793   R. Burns Poems (ed. 2) II. 220   Ye gipsy-gang that deal in glamor, And you, deep-read in hell’s black grammar, Warlocks and witches.

To discover the connection between magical glamor and ho-hum grammar, it’s necessary to trace the words to their mutual origin.

In the 14th century when gramarye entered English from French gramaire, “learning,” a broad type of learning was meant, including Latin and philology.

As time went on, (14th century) the learning associated with gramarye came to include astrology and magic. The word acquired a secondary meaning of “occult power” (late 15th century). This is the meaning that evolved into Scots glamour.

Traveling further back takes us to Latin grammatia, from Greek grammatike tekhne, “art of letters.” The term comes from Greek gramma, “a letter, something drawn or written.”

The alphabet is a set of magical symbols. Before literacy became available to the masses, the ability to write and read was recognized as a form of power. Not surprisingly, another word with the same pedigree as glamor and grammar is grimoire, “a magician’s manual for invoking demons and other supernatural entities.”

Nowadays, grammar is understood to mean “the study of a language which deals with means of indicating the relations of words in the sentence, and with the rules for employing these in accordance with established usage.”

The connection between glamor and grammar has become tenuous indeed. As an English teacher, I am painfully aware of the connotation the word grammar now bears. Tell any ten people you’re an English teacher, and nine of them will respond with a wince or a cringe and a mumbled “I never was any good at grammar.”

Different times, different values.

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8 thoughts on “The Magic of Grammar”

  1. Would this be the “broad type of learning” attributed to “grammar school?” The look-ups equate it to elementary school in the US and a type of secondary school in the UK related to learning the classic languages associated with a liberal arts education.
    PS – Let’s talk about the word “liberal.”

  2. MMMM! (that’s My, My Maeve Maddox!)

    Good topic IMO for a few reasons. The common roots of glamor and grammar are quite interesting. The first association I made on reading the post was an old house/estate I encountered somewhere (can’t remember where) called Grammercey>/i> (maybe one M) that I was told was intended to mean something like magic house or magical house.

    The second thing I thought of was the fact that the term *grammar school* as used in the US today (not so in the UK or Commonwealth apparently) has nearly the opposite of its original connotation. In the past, a school with a classics/classical languages curriculum akin to a modern preparatory school or post-secondary college vs. today, an elementary, pre-secondary school. Evidently, the latter usage emerged in the mid-20th century.

    Third (do I really have this much time on my hands?) I notice your spelling choice: glamor. It gets red-lined every time I type it by my supposedly American spellchecker. It was just asserted here by a recent comment regarding OR/OUR endings in American vs. British respectively that glamor is an exception to that rule in SAE and is often spelled with the U, unlike other such words. Well, it is not such an exception, and should not be considered one. To the first point, the spelling glamor has always been acceptable in SAE. To the second, it should not be treated as an exception to the American U-less rule because there is no reason for it to be an exception. Simple as that.

    If it were the case that the word came about via a different route from other such words (e.g., hour or sour) so that forcing an OR would be the result of a false equivalence, then OUR would be justified. That is what happens with the misspelling of sacrilegious, the mispronunciations of February, sherbet, the erroneous coining of empathetic (IMO), and the absolutely priceless over-correction, Rockerfellow. But that is not the case with glamor. The only argument for keeping a U in glamor is the weepingly weak one that it is glamorous to do so, as if such a coincidence in meaning and spelling convention is in any way relevant to anything. (We should spell it oronge instead of orange because the fruit is round, call a radish a redish because of its color, admire fancey things, or spell *fonetikly* for obvious reasons).

  3. Oh, I agree that “glamor” should be spelled in this simple way.
    To understand why the word gets “redlined”, you just have to understand how spell-checkers work. They contain a built-in dictionary, and someone carelessly omitted “glamor” from it.
    The same thing goes for “gauge” and some other words, depending on the exact version of dictionary that is included. I have also seen some cases in which the correct spelling of a word is included, AND a common misspelling of it is in there, too. To me, that’s dumb.

    As for the spelling “glamour”, I think that it is just used by people who want to appear to be “chromedomes”. They wish to project a false sense of erudation, in other words.

  4. To Venqax:
    By the way, the AMERICAN way of spelling the abbreviations of the names of countries is with periods: U.S., U.K., U.A.E., R.O.C., R.O.K., P.R.C., F.R.G., U.S.A., and the former U.A.R. (United Arab Republic – a union of Egypt and Syria). USSR was O.K. since this one was four letters long.

    By the way, O.K. is spelled with capital letters and two periods because this was the abbreviation for “Old Kinderhook”, the nickname of President Martin Van Buren, who was from Kinderhook, New York.
    Americans also use periods in abbreviations like Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr., Lt., Capt., Maj., Col., Gen., Cdr., Adm., C.O. (commanding officer), Ave., St., and Blvd. You can rely on the British and the Irish to find a lazy way to do it.

    President Van Buren initialed papers once he had read them with the “O.K.” as a reminder that he had read them once already.

    The traditional abbreviations of the names of the states (etc.) have periods, and the versions without periods are merely postal codes and should not be used otherwise. I will just mention the ones that have two words in them: N.Y., N.J., N.H., N.M., N.C., N.D., R.I., S.C., S.D., W.Va., D.C., and P.R. There are also several abbreviations for some of the Canadian provinces and territories N.B., N.S., P.E.I., B.C., N.T., Y.T., and some of the Australian states and territories: N.S.W., S.A., W.A., A.C.T. I don’t know how the Australians write them, but rather I am stating the American way. There is also the Northern Territory.

    Back when it was a territory, H.I. meant “Hawaiian Islands”.
    Back when it was a commonwealth of the United States, P.I. meant “Philippine Islands”. That ended in 1946.

    As for whether they abbreviated the name of the Central African Empire, I don’t know, but fortunately that one lasted for only about five years before it reverted to the Central African Republic and expelled its “emperor”.


  5. Actually, it is becoming ever rarer even in SAE to put periods between the letters of all-capital initials. Many style-guides now prefer the sans-a-dot, so US, UK, ROK, PRC etc. are quite acceptable. This has been the case for a long time in military usage where the capitals and the omission of periods has been mandated in some branches for a long time: LT, CAP or CAPT, MAJ, COL, GEN, CDR, ADM, and CO. Likewise PO3C, SSG,SGT, XO, etc. But the periods following capital-lower case combinations, you are correct, are still standard in SAE, but not in BrE. So Mr. Byamile, Dr. Pay, Mrs. Evrytime.

    OK is informal, as well. Formally it needs to be written out, okay. You know the “Old Kinderhook” saw about it originating with Van Buren is not true. Just legend and folk etymology. Same with “oll korect” erroneously attributed to an illiterate Andrew Jackson. The Van Buren campaign did use it, but the abbreviation came first, they didn’t invent it. And it probably is from a comical misspelling of oll korect”, but was not used by Jackson.

  6. How nice to accidentally come upon this site! I am reading “The Age of Genius” by Grayling, and find myself looking up something every five minutes. It’s going slowly and now will go more slowly as get distracted by following the rabbit rabbit tracks of words like “grammar, “glamour”, and “grimoire” Thank you! Lois Lebowitz

  7. Lois Lebowitz,
    I’m glad you enjoyed the article on grammar. I count it a lost day when I don’t come across at least one word that delights or intrigues me. Today it was “zoonotic.”

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