In a word: grammar
Michael Rosen's column on language and its uses
This article is a preview from the Winter 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
grammar (late 14th century, “rules of Latin”. From Old French gramaire, “grammar” or “learning”)
Theresa May seems wedded to the idea of bringing back “grammar schools” though she insists on saying that they won’t be like the grammar schools of the past. So why use the word at all?
It’s an Old French word that originally only referred to the grammar of Latin – the only language thought to possess grammar. Around 1600, people twigged that other languages had grammars too. Playwright Ben Jonson first used the word to treat “English grammar” under that name. It took until the late 19th century for a group of linguists to accept that all languages have grammars and there aren’t languages that have “bad” grammars.
I thought that people talking about “the grammar of film” and the like was a recent habit, but from 1642 onwards people have been talking of such things as the “grammar of military performance”, or the “grammar of ancient geography” (1796), with my “grammar of film” turning up first in 1963.
The word appears in conjunction with “school” from 1387 onwards. Shakespeare famously has rebel leader Jack Cade saying in Henry VI, “Thou hast most traiterously corrupted the youth of the realm, in erecting a grammar school.” I know the feeling. I went to one in 1957 and I was definitely traiterously corrupted there. The Oxford English Dictionary has it that by 1950 people were talking of “Harborough Grammar”, for example, and people also said, “She goes to the grammar.” This set it up for being used as part of a “compound noun” – as in calling people “grammar grubs”, to mean swots, or simply people who go to a grammar school.
In this “grammar school vs the rest” system, we acquired a sense of where we were supposed to be in the social hierarchy. It was never taught directly. But from about the age of nine or ten, through streaming and the flagging up of the children who had “got in”, we learned that “grammar” when attached to “school” meant something much simpler than a school with a particular kind of curriculum: “grammar” meant, or was supposed to mean, “good”. End of.