Paradigm, No 3 (July, 1990)


The Comic Latin Grammar:
A New and Facetious Introduction to the Latin Tongue (London: Charles Tilt, 1840)

Chris Stray

Department of Sociology,
University College,
Singleton Park,
Swansea SA2 8PP


A typical example of the humour: SYNTAXIS or the construction of grammar. Q: What part of the grammar resembles the indulgences sold in the middle ages? A: Sin-tax. (p. 63).

The book was written by Gilbert a Beckett and illustrated by John Leech. Both were associated with Punch and the humour and illustrations are similar. As the title suggests, the target and model was the Eton Grammar (A short introduction to the Latin tongue, 1758). Later versions of the Comic Grammar were known as the Comic Eton Grammar. The reissues and adaptations petered out in the late 1850s.

The interest of the book for the student of textbooks is that a grammar has become an institution to the extent that it can be used as the model, and butt, of this kind of popular work. (The first edition of 1840 was soon followed another in the same year -- unchanged except for the frontispiece.) It is also of note that the author was classically educated himself, and as well as laughing at the absurdities of the Eton Grammar, was quite capable of making latinate jokes. The book led to a comic English grammar and to comic histories of England and of Rome. Perhaps the nearest 20th-century equivalent is Sellar and Yeatman's 1066 and All That.

When is a textbook not a textbook? . . . .





An illustration by John Leach from The Comic Latin Grammar: A New and Facetious Introduction to the Latin Tongue (2nd ed., London: Charles Tilt, 1840), Opposite page 23. The master 'gives it' (dative) to the boy, who 'gives voice' (vocative) in response.


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