Monday, 25 November 2013

The Magic of Grammar

The Magic of Grammar




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 rarified 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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