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Club ‘an association’

By Anatoly Liberman


It is inevitable that after dealing with club “cudgel” we should ask ourselves where club “group of members” came from.  Some people think that the explanation is natural and easy.  Skeat was among them.  Following his etymology of club “cudgel,” he also derived this club from a Scandinavian source and commented: “Lit[erally] ‘a clump of people’.  Cf. Swedish dial[ectal] klubb, a clump, lump, also a knot of people.”  But clubs are a peculiar English institution dating to the last third of the 17th century, and the word in this sense could under no circumstances be taken over from a Swedish dialect.  Moreover, in those European countries in which clubs exist and are called clubs the word club is invariably a loan from English.  Skeat’s passing reference to clump causes only surprise.  It presupposes that those who gave such a name to their associations realized that clump was the etymon of club.  But of course, they didn’t.  They knew something quite different, namely the verb club “to collect or gather together, or combine into one body or mass.”  The definition is from the OED, but the earliest examples, which antedate insignificantly the appearance of the noun club, do not emphasize the idea of “massing” or of producing a “clump.”  The OED was fully aware of the difficulty.  The idea of “organization” does not follow from the sense “cudgel,” for no one ever clubbed people into forming groups, and a tie with clump is questionable even from a historical point of view (see the previous post).

As a curiosity, I will mention Carlyle’s once well-known derivation of club from German.  Carlyle, it will be remembered, was a great Germanophile, and, among many other things, English owes him the existence of the word windbag (he “calqued” it from German Windbeutel, that is, translated the compound element by element, wind + bag, and retained the meaning of the whole).  Nowadays, few people outside the circle of professional historians open Carlyle, partly because he is sometimes obtuse, as in Sartor Resartus, partly because of his over-ebullient style, as in The French Revolution, contrasting unfavorably with Macaulay’s measured narrative, but his six-volume History of Friedrich the Second, Called Friedrich the Great is a slow-going thriller.  Part of the summer is still left, and those who wonder what to take with them to the seaside will enjoy the book thoroughly, the more so as one can open it at any page and read on.  We are in the year 1190.

“This was the era of chivalry Orders, and Gelübde; the time for Bodies of Men  uniting themselves by a sacred Vow, ‘Gelübde,’ which word  and thing have passed over to us in a singularly dwindled condition: ‘Club‘ we now call it, and the vow, if sacred, does not aim very high!  Templars and Hospitalers were already famous bodies, the latter now almost a century old.  Walpot’s new Gelübde was of similar intent, only German in kind—the protection, defence, and solacement of Pilgrims, with whatever that might involve.”
(vol. 1, 1858, pp.111-12 = pp. 84-85 of the 1859 American edition, with defense for defence; Walpot was the first Great Master of the Teutonic Knights)

Gelübde does mean “vow”; the etymology of club is pure fantasy.

Frank Chance traced club to cleave “adhere”; in the form, he said, the word goes back to cleave “split” and in its meaning to cleave “adhere.”  He referred to the difference between companions (com-panions, those who share bread) and partners (part-ners, those who divide the gain and get equal shares).  This is one of Chance’s extremely few dead-end etymologies.  The noun club “association” is late.  In the 18th century, club and cleave were as disconnected in people’s minds as they are today, and to make matters worse, there in no certainly that the two were ever connected.

I am aware of only one reconstruction of the word’s origin that can be called sensible.  The light comes from two strange Old Icelandic nouns (both continued into the modern language): húskolfr and hjúkolfrKolfr was mentioned last week; it means “cudgel.”  Hús is the Icelandic for “house,” and hjú means “near.”  One of the oldest ways of calling a meeting was to send a stick (kolfr) with notches from house to house or an arrow (Old Icelandic ör meant “arrow” and “summons to a meeting; warrant”).  Those who belonged to a kolfr were called kylfingar.  According to a 16th-century German document, a party, especially a wassail, was called kolben or schlegel (hence the famous family name Schlegel).  Kolben “butt of a rifle; piston; retort” also turned up in the previous post in connection with cudgels.  Schlegel means “stick” (from schlagen “strike, beat,” cognate with Engl. slay).  German einladen “invite” may also trace to sticks with notches.  This etymology, though contested, is plausible.  Sticks and societies are sometimes connected in a rather unpredictable ways.  When we read the notice staff only, we do not think of staffs or staves.  The sense “assistants to an executive” came to English from Germany, where a raised staff was a symbol of military authority, and the name was later transferred to those who followed the man with a staff.  And of course an association is a group of people sticking together.

Clubs are a bit different in Iceland

Our clubs must owe their existence to those “cudgels” (sticks) that were sent from house to house and urged people either to come as soon as possible for a military campaign or for the sake of conviviality (that is, heavy drinking).  Here clubbing assumed its most pleasant form.  But, as so often, there is a missing link in this otherwise excellent etymology.  Given the background of such “clubbing,” the English word club must be of Scandinavian origin, like club “cudgel.”  However, the 18th century is too late for a borrowing form Swedish, Danish, or Norwegian.  At that date no one in London would have heard about húskolfr or hjúkolfr.  And klubbe, though it meant “gavel” and belonged to the person who chaired a meeting, did not mean “association.”  So one must suggest that somewhere in the depths of English the verb to club “come together” had lingered for a long time before it came to the surface, with the noun derived from the verb.  Such incidents often happened in the sixteen and seventeen hundreds.  A northern word (and if those senses of club are Scandinavian, they must have been preserved in the north) would reach the capital, become slang, and then lose its jocular overtones or low status and join Standard English.  It would have been better to do without guesswork, but all etymology is reconstruction, and reconstruction depends on assumptions.  We choose between possible, plausible, and probable derivations.  In my opinion, the Scandinavian derivation of club “a social institution” is probable.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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  1. [...] The origin of the term “clubmen” is unclear. The simplest explanations are that many were armed with clubs or they had “clubbed together”. The term “club” ( as in social club) apparently did not enter the lexicon until the late seventeenth century ( and the origin could be from the clubmen themselves). More detailed etymological information can be found here [...]

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