The Glamorous Grammarian

Digging into word origins is fascinating, and can be rewarding, especially when something new and unexpected pops out. That was the case with these two words: grammar and glamour.

In modern usage, the two are unrelated. One refers to the rules for combining words of a language into correct sentences; the other, to an attractiveness (usually in women) that includes an alluring, elusive quality.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine which is which.

Back in the 1930s through the 1950s or so, many Hollywood actresses were glamorous. That quality of glamour sustained many a soldier, sailor, and Marine during World War II. Betty Grable was one of the better-known glamorous actresses. Her pin-up photos graced many a ship or submarine’s wall, many a foxhole at the front, and many a makeshift aircraft hangar around the world.

I can’t think of any Hollywood stars of today with that quality. The elusive and mysterious aspects have largely disappeared.

Nowadays, even grammar seems to be becoming a lost art. I wonder how many high school graduates can name the eight parts of speech (or is it seven?…… (or that there is even such a thing)), or know the obscure notion of subject/verb agreement.

Considering how different in meaning these two words are, it came as a surprise that they stem from the same source.

Here’s the etymology for “grammar”, from an online Oxford English Dictionary:

late Middle English: from Old French gramaire,
via Latin from Greek grammatikē (tekhnē) ‘(art) of letters’,
from gramma, grammat- ‘letter of the alphabet, thing written’

And for “glamour”:

early 18th century (originally Scots in the sense ‘enchantment, magic’):
alteration of grammar. Although grammar itself was not used in this sense, the Latin word grammatica (from which it derives) was often used in the Middle Ages to mean ‘scholarship, learning’, including the occult practices popularly associated with learning

The common root of “grammar” and “glamour” is a word meaning “occult practices”, perhaps including witchcraft. Few witches in literature are described as glamorous, but a recent depiction of this one comes pretty close. And of course, Glinda the Good Witch

Another related word is “grimoire” (one rarely used, except perhaps by Harry Potter fans):

a manual of magic or witchcraft used by witches and sorcerers.
1850–60; < French, alteration of grammaire ‘grammar’ < Old French gramaire; see grammar

“Glamour” is one of the few words (perhaps the only one) that didn’t change from the “-our” lending to “-or” (as with “colour”/”color”) when it came to the States.


4 responses to “The Glamorous Grammarian

  1. Great find! I will tell my language students that, indeed, grammar is related to witchcraft. They will love it!

  2. I had no idea that “grammar” and “glamour” were related. Is there a reason we drop the U when spelling “glamorous”?

  3. English is such an illogical language. The problem is that it’s an amalgam of British and American English. (Their cars have “tyres” and “bonnets”.)

    It could be that we said something like, “OK, we’ll keep the ‘U’ in ‘glamour’, but you’ll have to keep it in “glamourous”.

  4. Amara: Thanks for stopping by. (I really must check my comments more frequently.)

    Considering that witches may be considered glamorous, we might just have to re-stage the 3 witches scene from Macbeth.

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