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The glamour of grammar

It turns out that glamour, a word we customarily associate with beauty or charm or a high level of attractiveness, comes from the same root as grammar, which we customarily associate with drudges such as your ob’t. Servant.

The Oxford English Dictionary explains how this came about:

“In classical Gr. and L. the word denoted the methodical study of literature (= ‘philology’ in the widest modern sense, including textual and æsthetic criticism, investigation of literary history and antiquities, explanation of allusions, etc., besides the study of the Greek and Latin languages. Post-classically, grammatica came to be restricted to the linguistic portion of this discipline, and eventually to ‘grammar’ in the mod. sense. In the Middle Ages, grammatica and its Rom. forms chiefly meant the knowledge or study of Latin, and were hence often used as synonymous with learning in general, the knowledge peculiar to the learned class. As this was popularly supposed to include magic and astrology, the OF. gramaire was sometimes used as a name for these occult sciences. In these applications it still survives in certain corrupt forms, F. grimoire, Eng. GLAMOUR.”

The word glamour came into English by way of Scotland, where it originally meant, the OED says, “Magic, enchantment, spell; esp. in the phrase to cast the glamour over one.” It made its way to beauty by way of magic, since the allure secured by magic was illusory and dangerous.

Now, as Fortune’s wheel creaks along, we appear to be circling back to a Medieval culture in which knowledge of grammar is peculiar to a learned (though neither wealthy nor prestigious) class, and in which mastery of grammar might as well be magic to those unlearned in it.

My students, for example. Or many journalists, some of whom appear to have given up the struggle to master its/it’s, who/whom, comprise/compose and other arcana. Or the exponents of the true democracy of the Internet, where one word is just as good as any other word.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:52 PM | | Comments (4)


Casting the glamour over someone: what a great expression. Have to see if I can't work that into conversation. But my question: in the phrase 'your ob’t. Servant,' why is ob't followed by a period, since the apostrophe already suggests the 'edien' has been cropped for expediency?

"Ob't." is an 18th-century touch. All right, affectation. That is how it would typically have been abbreviated.

When did the USA "glamor" become the UK "glamour" in the Sun's stylebook?

I made sure my daughter's wedding invitation said, "the honor of your..." instead of the affectation of "honour".

I used "glamour" in the post because that was the spelling in the OED entry, and I was disinclined to shift back and forth between the two spellings. Don't be distressed: The spelling in the pages of The Sun remains "glamor," just as "obedient" will not be replaced by "ob't."

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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