Word of the Day: Grammar

Word of the Day: grammar

Welcome to Word of the Day, a daily foray into etymology, grammar, historical linguistics, poetics, articulatory phonetics, and style – and Scripture, and literature, and baseball, and whatever else I happen upon in my way!

And the opening word is grammar, which, if you come from southern Massachusetts, might describe your mammar’s mammar – as the Massachusetts girls in Little Women call their mommy Marmie.  But for most people it describes a small grab bag of arbitrary “rules” nobody really understands or remembers.  For the few and the proud, however, grammar denotes the structural logic of a language, as that is made manifest in rules or tendencies that really do make sense – since making sense, after all, is what language is for.  When I ask my college freshmen whether they studied grammar in high school, most of them tell me that they did, but when I go on to ask them what a participle is, they give me a sheepish look, and admit that maybe they didn’t study it after all.  That’s the truth, right there; they haven’t.  To learn English “grammar” as that grab bag is like studying “zoology” by looking at a dog’s tail, the eating habits of cows, and what worms do when you cut them in half.  There’s no coherence to it, no systematic analysis, no way to grasp the whole.

I aim to supply some of that lack in these essays, while having some fun.  For anyone who wants to write or speak well should get to know the stuff of their craft, just as painters should get their fingers sticky in colors.

Back to the word grammar: it comes to us nearly intact from the Greek grammatike, the study of letters.  The word comes from the verb graphein, to write.  That didn’t mean typing things onto a screen, as I am doing now.  It meant taking a stylus and carving letters into a tablet; rather strenuous labor, which is why people often employed secretaries to carve their letters (and their letters) into the clay.  The Greek word is cousin to Anglo Saxon ceorfan (pronounced cheh-or-van), to carve, to cut.  In the old days that verb was “strong,” meaning that it formed its principle parts by changing the vowel: ceorfan, cearf, curfon, corven; the last, the past participle, survives in the good old adjective carven.

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