OUPblog > Language > Dictionaries & Lexicography > Club ‘cudgel’

Club ‘cudgel’

By Anatoly Liberman

Where there is golf, there are clubs; hence this post.  But club is an intriguing word regardless of the association.  It surfaced only in Middle English.  Since the noun believed to be its etymon, namely klubba, has been attested in Old Icelandic, dictionaries say that club came to English with the Vikings or their descendants.  Perhaps it did.  In Icelandic, klubba coexists with its synonym klumba, and the opinion prevails that bb developed from mb, which later became mp.  (The near synonymous lump is not related.  Its cognates are Engl. limp and German Lump(en) “rag”; however, the history of the limp-lump group is even harder to trace than that of club and its evasive kin.)  Although Engl. clump surfaced only in the 17th century, it has a respectable Old English antecedent and may, but need not be, of Scandinavian descent.  To wed clump to club, it is asserted that club emerged with the original sense “something pressed tightly together; clump.”  This sense will also haunt us next week.  At the moment, we can’t help wondering about the main thing:  Is a cudgel “a substance beaten into a mass, something pressed together”?  A cudgel is rather destined to beat its victim into such a mass.  Those who attempt to save the situation say that a club got its name from thickening toward the end; allegedly, it was visualized as having a knob (a lump).

When we turn to German, we find Kolben “butt of a rifle; piston; retort.”  Where English, or rather Scandinavian, has k-l-vowel-b, German has k-vowel-l-b.  Are club (from klumb?) and Kolben related?  Among the cognates of Kolben (which goes back to the older form kolbo), we find Old Icelandic kylfa “cudgel” and kolfr “bolt; metal bar; blunt spear; the tongue of a bell” (a later form is kólfr, but ó is simply o lengthened before lf).  German etymologists hedge and say that Kolben may be related to the club group and Keule, another word for “thick stick.”  Now, Keule appears to be related to German Kugel “bullet” and Engl. cudgel.  The sense “bullet” reinforced the conclusion that cudgels are things with knobs, bullet-like lumps, at their end.  The semantic bridge is shaky.  It rests on too many comparisons and hardly accounts for how klu-b is related to kol-b.  However, if these words are old, the situation can be rescued.  Compare the English verbs kn-ow (with kn pronounced as in acknowledge) and ken “to know.”  A root is often represented by a form with a vowel and a form without it.   A similar alternation can be seen in the reconstructed root gel- “to roll together; stick” and its variant gl-, as in Latin globus “globe”, literally “a round thing.”  It won’t do to say that in Kolben the vowel and l were simply “transposed,” for other languages also have words with the same order of sounds: compare Icelandic kolfr and kylfa, mentioned above.  Additionally, in German itself, alongside Kolben, with its reference to things thickening or widening toward the end, we find Kloben “log,” and the two may be related.

Dictionaries list numerous Germanic cognates of globe, including cleave “split” and the already familiar clump.  With regard to cleave I’ll quote a statement by Skeat made in 1866, that is, sixteen years before the publication of the first edition of his dictionary:

“The real curiosity consists in the fact, that the same word to cleave, has two senses—(1) to stick together; (2) to split apart, though these are differently spelt in Anglo-Saxon, as the word for stick together is clífian [as opposed to cleofan, with a long vowel].  Yet the root is probably the same, and may perhaps refer to the fact that a partly cleft tree will hold fast the wedges inserted in it….  Thus, for the bludgeon [that is, for club meaning “bludgeon”] compare the words clot, clump, clew (of twine), the Latin globus, &c.; in all of which the notion of close adherence or massing together is kept up.  A club is a rough clump of wood, an ill-shaped mass.”

In his dictionary, he said practically the same, but without additional explanations, which allowed him to evade the real problem.  (Let us note that if club is related to Kolben, it is, naturally, related to Dutch kolf, the most probable etymon of golf.)

Skeat was not the first to comment on the difference between cleave1 and cleave2.  Four years before him Frank Chance made similar observations (he was not the first either!), but, contrary to Chance, Skeat had an irritating habit of not referring to his predecessors, which sometimes got him into trouble.  However, rather than caviling at the great man, let us reread his formulation attentively.  A cleft tree will hold fast the wedges.  Apparently, he wanted cleave, the putative etymon of club, to be used with both meanings (“split” and “adhere”) at the same time.  This is an inadmissible move.  Nor is a club a rough clump of wood or an ill-shaped mass.  Few things have a more rigid structure than a cudgel.  Still greater trouble awaits us when we look at the seemingly solid cognates of globe.  The most authoritative sources offer a confusing picture.  For example, The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology says that Latin globus, referred by some to a reconstructed base gel- “roll together, stick,” with various formations, is held to be represented in clay, cleave “split,” clew, climb, clot, club, and clump.  The weakness of this statement (referred by some, is held to be) needs no proof.  Clew ~ clue and clot arouse no protest, but club does, for on the one hand, it is supposedly related to globe and clump (mass, roundness, and so forth) and on the other, is a cognate of a verb meaning “split” (we can disregard Skeat’s “adhere”).  How do cleaving, hewing asunder, and roundness go together?   The roots can be reconciled (see above), for there may have been the “base” k-l-b, with the vowel standing after k (as in German Kolben) or after l (as in German Kloben and Icelandic klubba), representing the so-called full and the zero grade.  It could also have a nasal infix (a nasal is m or n): compare my perennial example Engl. stand versus stood (there is a whole book of such forms in Indo-European).  It is the incompatible meanings that refuse to “adhere.”

Perhaps the only author who did not conceal his uneasiness about the whole business was Henry Cecil Wyld, the editor of The Universal Dictionary of the English Language.  He wrote all the etymologies for that work himslef, and some of them are original, a rare case in post-Skeat and post-OED English lexicography.  After listing the secure cognates of Engl. cleave and citing the Germanic base (root) kleub- ~ klaub- ~ klub-, from Indo-European gleubh-, as well as a few Latin and Greek forms meaning “peel, strip bark off; husk, shell; hollow out, engrave, cut,” and “notch in an arrow for the string,” he arrived at the following conclusion: “The further, remoter connexion with a base *gel- [an asterisk designates a reconstructed form], ‘to roll up in a ball’…may appear fanciful, but is not absolutely impossible.  The line of development of meaning, at this rate, would be ‘to unroll a ball, peel the skin off a round thing, e.g. the rind of a fruit’ whence ‘to break up, divide, split’ generally.”

Both scholars and amateurs groan under the ferrule of so-called sound laws (for instance, such and such look-alikes cannot be compared because certain consonants do not match), but even the strictest laws are better than lawlessness.  Although in historical semantics certain tendencies exist, imagination is often allowed a free flight: from “roll” to “unroll,” and so on.  Too much is possible, too little is probable.  I find the same hedging in Slavic etymological dictionaries.  The Slavic root that can be transcribed as k-l-omb- means “clew, etc.” but is allegedly related to Latin globus.  The idea of borrowing from some non-Slavic language has been offered and rejected many times.

I am about to offer a hypothesis radically different from the traditional one.  Cudgels are sticks thickening toward the end, and this feature may sometimes have been chosen as particularly distinctive.  German Keule, if it is related to Kugel “bullet,” and Engl. cudgel, are possible representatives of this group.  Cudgel, but not club!  There is a German verb klopfen “knock.”  Its etymological doublet is kloppen “to hit.”  Like Engl. clap, they are sound imitative words.  Onomatopoeic formations may spring up in any place at any time.  Engl. club is, most likely, a borrowing from Scandinavian, for it was not attested in Old English, but I believe that Icelandic klubba belongs not with clump, but with kloppen ~ klopfen, while klumba, far from being the source of klubba, is a derivative of it with a nasal infix.  In 1944 the verb clobber “beat, thrash” suddenly turned up.  It first gained popularity in British air force slang.  No one knows how it got there.  The sound complex clobber has always been slangy: compare Middle English (!) clobber “clothes.”  Like cloth (and its historical plural clothes), clobber begins with clCloth is another word of questionable origin.  At one time it may have been “low” and shared common ground with slang like duds (also Middle English).  However obscure clobber “beat” may be, it resembles klubbi and kloppen.  It must have sprung up obedient to the same impulse, unless it lay dormant in English for centuries or is an adaptation of some German verb like kloppen, coined in derision of its etymon (assuming that kloppen was known among German and British pilots).  So I think club has always been understood as an instrument for “knocking on” people and clobbering them.  No cleaving, no adhering.


Two curiosities.

1) The Latin for “club” is clava.  Since both begin with the same consonant (k), they cannot be related: in Germanic, h corresponds to Latin k.  And indeed, clava coexists with clavis “key” and clavus “club, staff.”  Clavis comes from claudere “to close.”  Clava and clavus must have been thought of as very big pegs or pins (primitive keys).

2) The English Dialect Dictionary mentions nudgel “a lump of any hard substance” (Devonshire), along with nudger “head” and nudgeling “hearty, robust, tough in constitution.”  Where did those words come from?  Wait for two weeks.

Linguists reconstruct protolanguages and protoforms.  In this picture, you will see the mother of clubs, a protoclub (as it were).

"Hercules and the Hydra" - Antonio del Pollaiolo

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.”

View more about this book on the


View more about this product on the

UK Website
USA Website
One Response to “Club ‘cudgel’”
  1. [...] can cite the example of British dialectal nudgel “cudgel,” mentioned two weeks ago at the end of the post on club. Nudge is a word of rather obscure antecedents.  Perhaps it existed [...]

Leave a Reply