In a Word: The Dark Magic of Grammar

Grammar can seem like a mystic vocabulary that magically unlocks a language, and people have thought that for centuries.

Alchemy still life

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Begun in 2008, National Grammar Day falls on March 4 every year. The date was chosen because, when said aloud, it sounds like a complete sentence, as in “March forth and celebrate!” Many people have a troubled history with grammar, a word that might dredge up memories of high school English teachers introducing words like predicate nominative, pluperfect, and hortatory, concepts memorized just long enough to be tested on and then forgotten.

Supposedly, buried within grammar were the keys to unlocking the secret inner mechanics of a language, of not only how we say things, but why we say them that way. To some, grammar is like a magic language they never truly understood — and people have felt that way for centuries. In fact, that feeling is reflected in the history of the word grammar itself.

The classical Greek grammatike, and then the Latin grammatica, referred to the study of language and writing — not just at the sentence-construction level like we think of grammar today, but of literature, literary criticism, and languages. Over time, though, grammatica became limited to language studies, especially Latin, the language of the learned.

In Old French, this grammatica became gramaire, which arrived as the English grammar in the 14th century. At this time, grammar referred specifically to the mechanics of Latin — there was no “English grammar.”

At least, that’s how academia understood the word. To the unschooled masses of Europe for whom Latin was so much mumbo-jumbo, grammar and its lexical relatives in other languages came to represent learning in general. That’s how grammar school, originally devoted to the memorization of Latin, managed to survive to the modern era as a synonym for elementary school, where today an actually Latin program would be rare.

Many were suspicious of the type of things those Latin-speaking academics were learning, too, even believing that they were exchanging mystic knowledge, including astrology and witchcraft. In Old French, for example, gramaire also meant “magic, enchantment.” Over time, and influenced by words like grimace, gramaire led to the English and French word grimoire, “a book of spells.”

Occult connotations didn’t pass English by, either. Grammar, as well as the practically obsolete word gramarye, both also denoted witchcraft and the study of magic. Scots speakers adopted these words, too, but then sometime in the early 1700s, grammar’s first R shifted to an L. It’s during this time that we start to find written use of glamer, or as we spell it today, glamour. (This type of R-L shift isn’t uncommon; pilgrim, for example, is derived from peregrinus.)

Glamour, which originally meant “a magic spell,” was then adopted into British English, and it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the word started to lose its occult connotations. But even today, there’s still a little magic in glamour, an illusory attractiveness that might momentarily enchant us.

There’s not much glamour in grammar these days, though … except for the type of people who would celebrate National Grammar Day. People like us know grammar is no mystic language, no set of strictures hemming in what and how we are allowed to speak and to write. We are the people who, as Roy Peter Clark writes in The Glamour of Grammar, “embrace grammar in a special way, not as a set of rules but as a box of tools.” Those tools, when we use them well, let us help readers feel strong emotions, or spur them to action, or explain complex ideas in ways they can understand, or simply enchant them enough that they can’t stop reading — they have to know what happens next.

Grammar is nothing to be afraid of.

Featured image: Kuznetsov Alexey / Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. There’s not much glamour in grammar or anything else for that matter. That’s probably because there just isn’t the appreciation of beauty and class in today’s world, and therefore little desire for it. I still like both, and believe you and the Post do too!

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