Evolution of a Magical Doublet

It’s no coincidence that in no known language does the phrase “as pretty as an airport” appear. 
- Douglas Adams

A question: what connects the linguist Noam Chomsky and the supermodel Naomi Campbell? You might say they share the same initials or that their given names are both derived from the Hebrew word for “pleasantness”. Well, you might say that – and who’s going to argue? – but a more subtle – and pleasing – connection can be summed up in one word: grammar. The link lies in the etymological relationship known as the doublet.

Think of cognates – words such as cold (English) and kalt (German) that have a common etymological origin; now think of two words in the same language with the same origin, like shadow and shade (Old English ‘sceadu’). The latter pair is a doublet. Simply put, a doublet refers to a pair of words within the same language that can be traced back to the same root. English is rich in doublets, some obvious (wine and vine), some less so (plant and clan). Despite the near-homophony, grammar and glamour are among the less obvious examples and, as is so often the case, we have Sir Walter Scott to thank for this.

Scott (1771–1832) provided the English language with a wealth of words ranging from his own coinages (freelance is one of his) and revivals of archaic terms (onslaught and henchman, for example) to outright borrowings from other languages (berserk from Old Norse among others). It was, however, the vernacular tongue he grew up with, Scots (a Germanic language closely related to English), which provided him with some of his richest expressions – many of which are now commonplace in standard English: words such as gruesome (from Scots ‘grue’ – to feel horror at + some) and, of course, the one that concerns us here: glamour. The word made its appearance in The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) and had the meaning of magical illusion. In Scots, it evoked the idea of enchantment, of how the eye could be easily deceived, conjuring up images of wizards and witches. And by happy coincidence, it’s one of Scott’s putative ancestors, the medieval scholar Michael Scot, who illustrates the development of the grammar/glamour doublet wonderfully.

Although he was also a mathematician and philosopher, Scot became better known in his lifetime for his interest in astrology and alchemy. In medieval times, the word ‘grammar’ (from the Greek for ‘letter’) had the sense of learning in general, and to the ‘unlettered’, books were treated with something approaching superstitious awe (and fear). It was no great leap for the unsophisticated to view a scholarly preoccupation with learning (‘grammar’) – particularly if it involved the so-called occult sciences – as a passkey to the darker arts. The ‘grammar’ book thus became a book of spells (cf. grimoire), and less than a century after his death, Michael Scot was more celebrated as a conjuror and magician than the translator of Aristotle and tutor to the Holy Roman Emperor. In his homeland, the word ‘grammar’ eventually altered to produce the separate noun ‘glamour’, which referred specifically to ‘enchantment’, while ‘grammar’ started to take on its modern sense of language rules.

If you look up ‘glamour’ in a dictionary, the definition will always include some allusion to artificiality, or even deception, and not only does this echo the supernatural ancestry of the word, but the concept itself also provides us with some entertaining metaphors for the ‘real’ world.

It may be more than a coincidence, then, that the differing and frequently conflicting views of what constitutes ‘good’ grammar in English are often also marked by appeals to what amounts to nothing more than the hocus-pocus of artificial ‘rules’ (such as: ‘passives should be avoided’, ‘don’t end a sentence with a preposition’…). It may be no coincidence either that one of the oddest hoaxes (also a word related to magic) of 2013 claimed that Noam Chomsky had just been voted “Sexiest Philosopher Alive” by… you guessed it… Glamour magazine. Nor should it come as a surprise that Swan, Naomi’s one and only foray into the world of literature, is notable principally for the claim that it was ghostwritten. Spooky? Moreover, I’m sure I could be forgiven if I conclude with the wicked observation that you can now say that one is famous for his grammar models, while the other is a grammar model. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a charming conceit.


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