The word clique sounds French doesn’t it. Well, it was.
Of course it means “a tight group of people” and is often used in a disparaging way.
You don’t want your kids hanging out in cliques because there are sure to be tears as membership in a clique shifts like the tide.
The word first appeared in English in 1711 in a book called, appropriately enough, The Club.
In French the word goes back another 200 or 300 years but the sources aren’t exactly unanimous as to why an exclusive social group might be called a clique.
The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that it is a kind of imitative word and describes a clicking or clacking sound. My reading of the OED etymology seems to imply that there were a group of people that made such a sound, but it’s pretty unclear.
The American Heritage Dictionary says it might be from Old French with a meaning of “a latch.” They don’t explain that, but I’m left wondering if there is an implication of the members of a clique latching together.
Merriam-Webster says “latch” also but explains itself by saying that this is due to the secrecy associated with cliques.
The book I mentioned The Club, containing the first example of clique, was by a guy named James Puckle. It was very popular and went through many printings.
He wrote the book in the form of a dialogue between a father and son, talking about the people in the son’s club. The father then moralizes so the book is supposed to be somehow full of little life lessons.
These people are conveniently recalled by the son in alphabetical order, not by name but instead along the lines that the first guy’s called “the antiquary” and the second “the buffoon,” and so on.
It is “the knave” in who’s little profile we reach the word clique.
There are some weird vibes going on between this little book and what was then real life.
The knave is described as a stock-jobber which I’m told is a “stock broker,” but looks more to me like a “stock promoter.” This knave is spoken of as a bit of a liar and a cheat and it turns out that the author James Puckle himself was a stock-jobber.
As well as writing his book he was flogging shares in fishing fleets, some kind of special sword that he’d invented and a kind of machine gun that is reported to have been able to fire either round bullets or square bullets.
The idea here was that when fighting fellow Christians you’d use round bullets but if you were shooting at Muslims you could do more damage with square bullets and that this was somehow unethical to do to Christians.
He produced a lot of pamphlets trying to get people to give him money and other people wrote responses making fun of him.
One of them claimed that the machine gun was more dangerous to investors than to the enemy. Unfortunately for a duke who bought the things for a battle, this proved to be true.
Another bit of irony about James Puckle was that although his successful book was modeled on fatherly advice to a son, in real life he had a falling out with his kids and disinherited them.
Maybe he was the right author to bring us the word clique.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the forthcoming short format audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.