Welcome to the Word of the Week
First word: Grammar!
Welcome to Word of the Week, a weekly foray into etymology, grammar, historical linguistics, poetics, articulatory phonetics, and style – and literature, and baseball, and cartoons, and Scripture, and whatever else I happen upon in my way!
And the opening word of the week is grammar, which, if you come from southern Massachusetts, might name your mammar’s mammar – as the Massachusetts girls in Little Women call their mommy Marmie, not pronouncing the r when it comes after a vowel. But for most people grammar names 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, despite politicians everywhere, 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 of rules 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, now and then, in my Word of the Week, while having fun with words generally. 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 our first word of the week, 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. It was strenuous labor, which is why people often employed secretaries to carve their letters (and their letters) into the clay. The Greek word graphein 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 principal parts by changing the vowel: ceorfan, cearf, curfon, corven; the last, the past participle, just barely survives in the good old adjective carven.
Check your in-box or stop by on Mondays for a new word to ponder! (The text version of the Word of the Week is included in all subscriptions. The version enhanced with audio will generally go out to paid subscribers.)
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