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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, March 4, 2016

National Glamour Day

The Kate in this picture is into glamour; the Kate writing this post is into grammar

Well, apparently it's National Grammar Day. I don't know where these "days" originate and don't usually observe them, but hey, I'm as much of a sucker for people clicking on my site as other people, so I am going to share the surprising history of the word "grammar".

"Grammar" comes ultimately from the Greek word gramma (a letter of the alphabet or something written). In theory, "grammar" in the Middle Ages meant the study of language, but in practice it meant only the study of Latin, because Latin was the only language that was taught using the study of structures. People probably weren't even aware that languages like English, French, and German even had something that could be called "grammar". Many students are probably wishing at this point that we could go back to those innocent days.

Grammar is magic

Because "grammar" meant the knowledge or study of Latin, it was also used to mean the knowledge of those who belonged to the learned class, and this knowledge was thought to include magic and astrology. So "grammar" or "gramarye" could mean "magic" or "occult learning" as well.

Grammar is beauty
Yet another variant of this word was "glomery", which the Scots changed to "glamour" in the early 1700s, still with this association with the occult. So "glamour" started out in Scots English meaning "magic" or "spell". Then Sir Walter Scott used it  in this sense. Because Scott's novels were such big bestsellers, this Scottish word became very popular, shifting in sense to mean a kind of bewitching beauty, and gradually acquiring its current sense of highly refined beauty or attractiveness. 

When I was a teenager, my sister and I used to read Glamour  magazine (you would never be able to tell by looking at me now). I bet it wouldn't sell half so well if it were called Grammar magazine!

Grammar is glamour

So, unlikely as it may seem, grammar and glamour have the same origin.

A couple of spelling issues with "glamour". 

  1. Even Americans spell it this way; there is no "glamor" variant listed in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate dictionary. This is because its history is different from other words ending in -our/or (for which click here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2011/07/discouver-vancouver.html)
  2. Just to be annoying, however, the adjective derived from "glamour" is spelled "glamorous" by everyone.  This maintains the pattern established by such pairs as "humour/humorous", "odour/odorous", "rigour/rigorous" etc.

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.