The Glamorous Roots of “Grammar”

Tuesday, January 31 2 min read

In 1939, Condé Nast introduced the magazine Glamour of Hollywood . The publication explored the meaning of its title in the opening pages of the first issue : “What is glamour? Enchantment, illusion, witchery?” The title borrowed its meaning from the Scots-dialect definition of “glamour,” meaning “magic [or] enchantment.” But the word “glamour” has another source: “grammar.” Let’s trace the winding history of “glamour” and its unlikely origins in “grammar.”

Grammar’s Roots

How does a word associated with beauty come from something associated with commas and verb conjugations? “Grammar” comes from the Greek word grammatikos , meaning “of letters.” Applied more broadly, “grammar” referred to learning, and in Europe in the Late Middle Ages, that was done in Latin. A majority of the written documents from this time were in Latin, and it was the language for members of the educated class, from students studying classical texts to politicians creating laws.

Contrast Latin with the vernacular (spoken) languages toward the end of the Middle Ages, and the great difference is in the lack of standardized spellings and definitions. Take Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which was written in the late 1300s. In it, Chaucer uses “lym” instead of “limb” and “were” instead of “war.” It wasn’t until the 1700s that Samuel Johnson published The Dictionary of the English Language with the goal of creating standardized spellings in British English . Around the same time, Noah Webster was creating his own dictionary in the colonies and changing the spelling of Johnson’s words to create American English.

The definition of “grammar” incorporated sorcery because many spellbooks (called “grimoires”) were written in Latin — and only the educated elite knew how to read these texts. Magic, alchemy, and sorcery were common practices throughout the Middle Ages for philosophers, doctors, and members of the clergy — though they were also dangerous practices at times. The definition of “grammar” expanded to include not just literary teachings, but occult ones as well.

How “Grammar” Changed to “Glamour”

The word “grammar” traveled from England to Scotland, where it shifted to “glomery ” in Scots English. By the 1700s, “glomery” had turned into “glamour” in the Scots dialect, in which it meant “magic” or “a spell.” Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott began using the word with a different usage of “a magical beauty.”

In this iteration, “glamour” kept its magical roots; Scott used it to refer to a type of enchantment that casts an illusion. He wrote of a common man who — thanks to “glamour art” — appears to be a knight. At the time, “casting a glamour” was a way of saying someone had created an illusion. In Scott’s poem, this glamour works to make a young woman fall in love with the young man. As the 18th century turned into the 19th, the definition expanded again to include “a highly refined beauty or attractiveness.”

Grammar and Glamour in the Present Day

Today, “grammar” sticks to its “language rules” definition. But as one writer points out , there’s something a little magical in being able to develop a narrative or elicit a feeling based on a well-crafted sentence. As for “glamour,” its definition shifted again in the 19th century to mean “the power of enchantment, metaphorically applied to female fascination,” a usage that holds strong in the beauty and fashion magazines of today.

Featured image credit: Gang Zhou / iStock

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