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God and clod

In an old post, I once referred to Jack London’s Martin Eden, a book almost forgotten in this country and probably in the rest of the English-speaking world. Martin is not Jack London’s self-portrait; yet the novel is to a great extent autobiographical. The protagonist, in the beginning an uncouth and uneducated sailor, becomes a famous writer. One of his essays, devoted to the nature of realism in fiction, bears the title “God and Clod” (Chapter 27). I also have to say something about clod, but as an object of etymology.

In my case, the clod and the plot I am about to investigate began with the history of the verb clutter, or rather with Middle High German verklüteren, which occurs in Gottfried’s Tristan; it is glossed as “to confuse, bewitch.” Isolde, who used the word while berating Tristan before the two drank the love potion, meant that Tristan had cluttered her mind with vicious blandishments. I looked up clutter in etymological dictionaries and found myself in a morass of kl-words referring to dry and liquid dirt.

Isolde thought that Tristan had obfuscated, cluttered her mind, but he did not. Both ended up as playthings of fate.

Clutter “clotted mass” turned up in English texts only in the sixteenth century, but Chaucer already knew clotter, and in the fifteenth century clodder had some currency. It does not come as a surprise that, while discussing clutter, dictionaries mention clot and clod. Clot, at present mainly associated with clotted blood, goes back to Old English and reminds us of its German counterpart Klotz “a great lump; chunk” (also, a disrespectful name for a certain kind of person), Engl. cleat “wedge,” and clout “patch; piece of cloth, etc.” If we keep following the cross-references in our most reliable sources, we will discover not only clod (which, despite its final -d, began its history in English with the sense “clot of blood,” yet developed into “lump of earth” and, somewhat unexpectedly, into “stupid person”—not quite a synonym of German Klotz, but sharing a strong aura of disapproval with it) but also cloud. Cloud surfaced in Old English and meant “hill, rock; block,” which is somewhat reminiscent of Klotz “chunk.” In the thirteenth century, cloud came to mean what it does today and superseded its synonym wolken, still recognizable in the obsolete noun welkin “sky.” Modern German and Dutch have Wolke and wolk “cloud” respectively.  However, the connection between clod and cloud is hard to establish because of the semantic leap from “hill, rock” to “a mass of vapor in the air.”

Is this a rock or a hill? Or does it look like a camel?"
Is this a rock or a hill? Or does it look like a camel?

Thus, we end up with a sizable number of kl-t/d words designating a wet mass, along with lumps and blocks of various kinds. Perhaps at present the vague common denominator of the entire group is “formlessness,” rather than “dirt, mud.” This, however, is not an etymology, and we have to look at what our authorities say about the origin of the clot—clod group. First of all, we discover that the list, offered above, is incomplete. The Century Dictionary indicates that the form and senses of clot seem to have been confused in various languages with those of the obsolete clote “burdock” (same as clot(e)-bur and a full synonym of clite) and clot “to coagulate.” Clod, we read, was perhaps influenced by cloud. Cloud, in turn, is said to have been partly confused with clot and clod. Finally, clite corresponds to German Klette “burdock,” which, as though we have not had enough, means the same as Engl. clife and may be related to the verb cleave “adhere.”

Some etymological dictionaries arrange words under reconstructed roots. Although this is an inconvenient system, clustering some words for the purpose of discovering their origin may sometimes facilitate our work. Disconnected, individual entries—clot, clod, clout, cleat, clite, clutter (and, as we will see, clatter!)—distract the user’s attention from the words’ shared history; obviously, we are dealing with a nest, even if it is a nest of heterogeneous entities. As regards clatter, our first source is Skeat, who, under clutter “clotted mass; to clot” explains that the word also meant “confusion, a confused heap, turmoil, din,” by association with clatter; cf. East Frisian klöter “a rattle.” Skeat’s glosses are correct: clutter did mean, as early as in the sixteenth century, “noisy turmoil; confused noise.”

Clutter, as noted above, resembles some words in the neighboring languages. Middle High German verklüteren, Modern German Klotz, and East Frisian klöter have already been mentioned.  We can also consider Low German Klatter “excrement,” German klatt(e)rig “dirty,” Kladde “crib; scribbling pad” (that is, a “first, dirty version of a manuscript”), and a few others meaning “lump; swelling; round object; cluster” (Kloß, Kloot, Klut, and so forth). If we add German Klatsch “chit-chat” to this list, we will find ourselves close to Engl. clatter. The wider our net, the richer our catch will be. Consider Old Icelandic klatr “noise,” kland(r)a “to censure, criticize,” and a few other kl– words, such as Dutch klutsen “beat up eggs.” Verbs like clutter and clatter are called frequentative, or iterative, because they denote recurring, often repeated actions. In English, most of them are from either Dutch or Low German. We have to discover the origin of clat- ~ clot- ~ clut. The verbs will then take care of themselves. As alwaysl, our conclusion will depend on where we’ll start. I think we should avoid an easy reference to onomatopoeia. What is sound-imitative in English clot or German Kladde? To be sure, clatter may be onomatopoeic (compare click, cluck, and clack), but other kl-words are not.

I am not sure whether the analog clutter/ smite is my idea or whether I have read it somewhere. The English verb smite surfaced in twelfth-century English texts with the sense “to administer a blow.” The past participle, as in smitten with grief (remorse, love), still retains that sense; for ordinary purposes we have strike and hit. But Old Engl. smītan meant “to smear, pollute,” and this was, obviously, the ancient sense of the Germanic verb, as evidenced by Gothic and Old High German. At one time, the connection between a strong blow and dirt must have been clearer to speakers than it is now. We splash paint on the wall and produce a spot. It seems that initially kl-words referred to the noise made by a vigorous blow, so that clatter is a relic of the oldest association. But later the effects of the blow (confusion) came to the fore. The recorded senses of Engl. clutter “din” and “confusion” form a natural union and draw a bridge from it to clatter. As noted, the earliest attested sense of smite in Germanic was “to pollute,” but it does not necessarily mean that it was the initial one. Perhaps the verb also first meant “to strike.”

There is a postscript to my argument. As time went on, kl- acquired a symbolic meaning of its own. Just as gl– is often associated in our intuition with glowing, glistening, glittering objects and as sl– makes us think of slime, slops, slithering, and sleazy politicians, so did kl– begin to conjure up an image of things dirty and disorderly. Near homonyms in Low German and Dutch, which owed their origin to the same process, perhaps infiltrated English and reinforced that image. As a result, today we wander among excrement and burdock and wonder whether all such words are related. Some of them are. The others resemble a cluster of mushrooms growing on a stump: they belong together but lack a common root. They have no root at all: they are the produce of the same soil and, to form a group, need no pedigree.

A perfect model of etymology.
A perfect model of etymology.

Images: (1) “Tristan and Isolde 29” by Unknown, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons (2) “Wolkentoren” No machine-readable author provided. Briain assumed. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons (3) Mushroom Forest by Jenő Szabó, Public Domain via Pixabay

Image credit: Clouds by lmaresz, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Paul Nance

    Quite a mass of meanings. As to the clutter/smite analog, both clod and clout can mean a heavy blow. Could German kloß (lump, or lumpish dumpling) be related?

  2. Kari Boyd McBride

    “Clabber” too is in this clot of related words.

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