Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

A story of how a cluttered mind can find itself in clover

Once again, no gleanings: the comments have been too few, and there have been no questions. Perhaps when the time for a real rich harvest comes, I’ll start gleaning like a house on fire. When last week I attacked the verb clutter, I planned on continuing with the kl-series; my next candidates were cloud and cloth. The nearest future will show whether I have enough material for cloud; at the moment, I can only say that the origin of cloth is a worthwhile topic. However, before I deal with cloth, it may be useful to devote a post to clover (some difficulties in the treatment of cloth and clover are similar), even though one can read a long entry on it in my etymological dictionary.

Old English had two forms of the word for “clover”: clāfre ~ clābre and clæfre (also with a long vowel; æ had the value of a in Modern Engl. man). The presence of long æ alternating with long a gave etymologists a good deal of trouble, but I will ignore this problem, for it is not the phonetic but the semantic history of clover that is at issue here: we want to know why people called the familiar plant clāfre. Some etymologists of the past believed that clāfre is a compound (clā– + –fre) and tried to find the origin of the enigmatic –fre. The great Friedrich Kluge even compared it with –fer in Engl. heifer. (I have a soft spot for heifer, for my etymological career began with this word. Its origin is still not quite clear despite many efforts to “illumine the gloom in which its history appears to be involved,” but, unlike clover, the word heifer, from Old Engl. heahfore, is almost certainly a compound.) Old Engl. clāfre should probably be divided into clāf– and –re, rather than clā– and –fre, for –re looks like the continuation of –dre, a common suffix of tree names (unfortunately for this etymology, clover is not a tree): apuldre “apple tree,” mapuldree “maple,” and so forth. Later, this –dre was associated with the word tree; hence Old Engl. æppeltre and æppeltrēow.

Even when a heifer is in clover, nothing follows from this fact for etymology.
Even when a heifer is in clover, nothing follows from this fact for etymology.

We should leave Old Engl. –fre in limbo and turn to the word’s root. Engl. clover has cognates in all the West Germanic languages and nowhere else (for comparison: the Icelandic for “clover” is smári; in Gothic, this word has not been recorded). Danish and Norwegian kløver, Swedish klöver, and Russian klever are loans from Low (= northern) German. Some researchers believe that clover is a remnant of a lost language, the pre-Indo-European substrate. If this is true, there is nothing more to say. But I will assume that the Germanic origin of clover is reconstructable and will continue.

The earliest guess about the origin of clover (German Klei, Dutch klaver) took inspiration from Latin trifolium “trefoil, clover”: allegedly, since the Latin word refers to the cloven form of the leaf, the same is true of clover, which must be allied to Engl. cleave “to split” (from Old Engl. clēofan), Dutch klieven, and German klieben. If phonetic “laws” mean anything (and I believe they do), Old Engl. ā (in clāfre) and ēo (in clēofan) are incompatible, because Old Engl. ā practically always goes back to ai, but ai and ēo belong to different ablaut series, that is, they do not intersect in the forms derived from one and the same root. Some other linguists preferred to trace clover to the root of clay, because clover prefers sandy and loamy soils, or to the Indo-European root gloi– “bright, shining.” Though clover comes in several colors, none of them is particularly bright. Also, it may flourish on loamy soils, but it would be strange if this feature were chosen as the most noticeable one in the naming of the plant. (Incidentally, the idiom to be in clover is usually explained with reference to cattle’s delight in eating clover.)

A man should cleave to his wife.
A man should cleave to his wife.

The etymology, half-heartedly accepted by most modern authorities, connects clover with the other cleave “to adhere.” The verb is archaic but not dead. Its Old English form was clīfan; ī, from ai, and ā do belong to the same ablaut series. It took clīfan and clēofan centuries to merge. Modern speakers are often puzzled by the opposite senses (“to split, sever” and “to stick to”) of the “same” word. But the word is not the same. Cleave1 and cleave2 are as different as sea and see and as meat and meet, except that they ended up with an identical orthographic image. It might not be too bad to “reform” them to cleeve and cleave. The question of course is what is sticky about clover.

The clover, it doth cleave.
The cleaver, it doth cleave.

Clover evokes the idea of an adhesive mass in several languages. Icelandic smári, mentioned above, may be related to the Scandinavian word for “butter”: Swedish smör, Old Icelandic, Norwegian, and Danish smør, etc., though this etymology is debatable (of course). In Russian, a popular synonym of klever is kashka, formally, a diminutive of kasha “porridge, cereal.” With a word denoting “pap, mash, pulp” we are not too far from cleave “adhere, stick to.” German kleben, an obvious cognate of cleave, is a close synonym of schmieren “spread (butter); lubricate.”

But perhaps clover is “sticky” because its thick juice is traditionally one of the main sources of honey. The missing link between clover and stickiness is provided by the English word honeysuckle, which until the end of the seventeenth century meant “red clover.” This meaning is still alive in dialects. Honey stalk mentioned in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (IV: 4, 90) are stalks of clover. Not only the cattle appreciate the sweet taste of clover: wherever it grows, children chew it, as they chew honeysuckle and sometimes lilac. As recently as at the end of the nineteenth century, poor people in Iceland put clover in their milk and ate this “cold cereal.”

The etymology I have hesitatingly supported here is far from “final.” It is mentioned in some excellent dictionaries with a question mark, ignored in others, and even rejected by a few leading specialists. One observes with amusement that in German lexicography the connection between clover (Klee) and cleave (kleben) appeared only after Kluge’s death and stayed in the next eleven editions of his dictionary, until Elmar Seebold took it out. I know that I keep beating the same horse, but that is because I cannot decide whether the nag is willing or dead. All the current etymological dictionaries of English, German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages are “concise,” and that is their fatal flaw. For instance, Seebold did not explain why he disagreed with his predecessors, and Götze, Kluge’s faithful student and amanuensis (Kluge was blind for many years) did not explain why he had rewritten his teacher’s entry.

To sum up: there is some reason to believe that clover got its name because it was adhesive, sticky, “cleaving.” For some reason, unusually many English, Dutch, Frisian, and German words beginning with kl- have no known cognates outside West Germanic. It would be dangerous to ascribe this fact to sound symbolism (sound symbolism being such a vague concept) and equally rash to dismiss such words as traces of an unknown substrate. We will return to this precarious situation while examining the history of the noun cloth.

Image credits: (1) Cow by lisaknola, Public Domain via Pixabay (2) Clover field near Russin by Björn S… CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons (3) Naples – Old couple 1890s by Anonymous, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons (4) Cleaver by Pashminu Mansukhani, Public Domain via Pixabay

Featured image: “Clover” by Paul Horner, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Ainslie Thomson

    You may wish to look at “cleavers” or “clivers”, two of the common names for Galium aparine, which is also “sticky” because of the tiny hooks on its leaves and stems.

  2. Mark Browse

    Is there any connection with clove? Either the spice or a segment of garlic?

Comments are closed.