Is there anything so glamorous as grammar? Is there anything so magical? I ask because the three ideas—grammar, glamor, and magic—are connected etymologically.
The word grammar has its roots in the Greek word grammatike, which literally means “the art of letters.” The gramma– at the beginning means “letter,” or, more literally, “that which is marked.” From gramma you get such words as telegram, hologram, angiogram, and Instagram, plus the graph words such as autograph, pictograph, polygraph, and graphite, the substance that makes it possible for pencils to write letters.
The -tike at the end of grammatike is a version of tekhne, “art or skill,” as in technology, technical, and architect. The word textile is also part of this word-constellation. (And the word text is connected to textile: the words of a text are woven into a fabric of story.)
The Greek grammatike became the English grammar by way of the Latin grammaria. For the most part, the word grammar, like its forebear grammatike, refers to book-learning, and specifically to the rules that govern the use of a language. But grammar has also referred to other kinds of knowledge and learning, especially the arcane knowledge of magicians and occultists. Gramary is an obsolete word meaning “necromancy, magic, or enchantment.” A grimoire, also obsolete, is a manual for invoking demons or the spirits of the dead. (I checked to see whether grim has any connection to grimoire, but, alas, it does not seem to.)
The Scots got hold of that sense of grammar as magical learning, swapped out the first r for an l, and came up with the word glamour ,meaning “magic or enchantment,” as well as the phrase “to cast the glamour on,” which I will start trying to incorporate into my everyday speech forthwith.
It’s not hard to see how we get from glamor as magic or enchantment to glamor as a kind of beauty that makes people feel as if they are under a spell. Once you start paying attention, it’s pretty striking how many of our words and phrases related to beauty and charm are connected to magic. The word charm itself refers to a magical spell, deriving from the Latin carmen, meaning song, spell, or ritual. To be enchanted is to be under a spell (enchantment comes from exactly the same place as incantation). Even the word fascinate has dark origins. Witches, like snakes, have a reputation for being able to “fascinate” their victims by giving them a look that renders them unable to move. We sometimes speak of beautiful or charming women as being bewitching. You don’t have to be an etymology wizard to suss out the connection between beauty and spell-casting there.
Then there are words like enthralling (literally, putting into thrall or servitude), captivating, and mesmerizing, which don’t speak of magic per se, but do imply that personal charm and beauty give a person quasi-magical power over other people. If only grammar were as mesmerizing as glamor.
Note: my source for much of the above is the excellent website etymonline.com
David French on Bearing False Witness
Finally, I want to call your attention to a piece by David French, a writer and thinker whom I admire very much. The piece has the alarming title, “A Whiff of Civil War in the Air,” but I hope you won’t let that scare you away.
French makes the case that the woeful state of American public discourse is woefuller and more dangerous than it has to be because a) we aren’t trying hard enough to tell the truth about people who disagree with us, and b) the people who shape the discourse have strong incentives to convince us that our opponents are worse than they are.
The combination of malice and misinformation is driving American polarization to a fever pitch. While there are real differences between the political parties, a fundamental reality of American politics is that voters hate or fear the opposing side in part because they have mistaken beliefs about their opponents. They think the divide is greater than it is.
French cites a recent UVA poll that found that “a ‘strong majority’ of Trump supporters falsely believe there is no real difference between Democrats and socialists. A majority of Biden voters falsely see no real difference between Republicans and fascists.” Friends, the typical Democrat isn’t a Socialist. The typical Republican isn’t a Fascist. Sure, there are dangerous radicals among the people you disagree with. But there aren’t as many as most of us seem to think.
I flatter myself that the readers of The Habit Weekly are well educated. Here’s something you should find alarming, my well-educated readers: increased education and increased media consumption make people more likely to “exaggerate the extent to which members of the other party dehumanize, dislike, and disagree with them.”
You really should read the whole piece for yourself (here’s that link again). But I want to wrap up with the passage from David French’s piece that really helped reframe and re-center the whole discussion for me.
One of the great tragedies of our time is that a nation oppressed by malice and misinformation should be ready to receive a Christian message of love and truth. It’s exactly now that a healthy church could be a beacon in the darkness. Yet is that truly the Christian presence in our political culture?
Let’s take, for example, something as simple as the Ninth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” That’s not just a command. It’s a way of living. The Westminster Larger Catechism states our obligations powerfully. Read this in light of our modern political discourse (emphasis added):
The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor, as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever; a charitable esteem of our neighbors; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for, and covering of their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; discouraging talebearers, flatterers, and slanderers; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth; keeping of lawful promises; studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.
It’s hard for me to read those words and not hang my head in shame. I too often fail to achieve that standard. Yet vast numbers of the Christian political coalition do not even try. To them, there is a hidden politics exception to virtually every relevant command.
I don’t wish to oversimplify, but I do wish to simplify: Let’s not bear false witness about our neighbors—not even neighbors who themselves bear false witness. Let us freely acknowledge the gifts and graces of our neighbors (and let us define “neighbors” as broadly as possible), readily receiving a good report, unwilling to receive an evil report. And by all means, let us discourage talebearers, flatterers, and slanderers.
In short, let us tell the truer story.