Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The heterogeneous “kl”-clan again: “clay,” “clove,” and all, all, all

Last week, I mentioned Francis A. Wood’s rhyme words and rhyme ideas and cited his example cloud and crowd. In my life, such a pair is gleaning and cleaning. We need not bother about their possible relationship; it is the proximity of senses that counts: providing a set of gleanings (ideally, every fourth Wednesday) is like monthly cleaning. The end of the kl-series is in view: what has not been said can be guessed from the previous posts, and the main ideas have already been brought home. However, some odds and ends remain. Today I would like to comment on the suggestions by our readers and make a few additional points.

Many English kl-words are incontestably sound-imitative: for example, click, clack, cluck, clink, clang, clap, clash, and clatter. Clap “gonorrhea” deserves special treatment, and it is anybody’s guess whether the verbs clip and clutch have anything to do with sound imitation. “Bright” and “loud” are related concepts: one refers to dispelling darkness, the other to breaking through the noise. What is clear can also be loud, and this is the reason why clear, from Old French, ultimately from Latin clārus, is sometimes thought to be allied to calāre “to call.” Clamor and claim, related to Latin clāmāre “to cry; call,” belong here too. Call, a borrowing from Scandinavian, is one of the most puzzling words in our vocabulary because the syllable kol ~ gol is connected with producing sound in many languages. Why should kl ~ k-l be associated with giving voice? Br-, kr-, dr-, and their likes are seemingly better suited for this role.

Do you have a clue to why this picture has been chosen?
Do you have a clue to why this picture has been chosen?

Another group of kl-words reminds us of stickiness. The poster child of this group is cling. Clamber and cleave “to adhere” are its next of kin. Hence the names of rather numerous plants; such is German Klette “burdock” (compare German klettern “to climb”) and, quite probably, Engl. cleavers, clivers, and clover (clover was the subject matter of a recent post). When many things stick together, they form a mass. Cloud, clod, clot, clutter, cluster, cleat, along with German Kloss “lump” and Klotz “chunk,” as well as Engl. clout, developed from “lump; mass” (hence “patch, wedge”). Clew “ball of thread” is another mass, and there is an uneasy connection between clew and claw. A “mass” can be produced by squeezing, and this is where clam and clamp “band of metal” come in. By the way, an earlier form of clam “shellfish” was clamp.

Nice exterior but a nasty middle. (Plants and humans often share important characteristics.)
Nice exterior but a nasty middle. (Plants and humans often share important characteristics.)

Clay also makes one think of stickiness, especially when we take into account German Klei “clay” and Kleie “bran.” The etymology of Kleie is debatable, but, as concepts, “bran” and” stickiness” are not too remote. In my opinion, Engl. bran is related to brain, with both meaning “mass.” Engl. clump “a compact mass of trees” looks like a close neighbor of all those words. In any case, Dutch klomp means “lump” and klamp means “heap,” whence Engl. clamp “stack of bricks; turf.” Those interested in the origin of club “cudgel” and club “association” (an association is of course a “mass”) will find my thoughts on this subject in the posts dated 13 July and 20 July 2011.

All this bears out the idea I promoted in one of the essays of this series. We seem to be dealing with words that are related, but their kinship is based on the presence of a rather vague idea. Language chooses the complex kl-, adds alternating vowels to it, and we get a picture like the one illustrating a recent post: a stump with a cluster of mushrooms growing on it. Those words resemble climbing plants, ivy, for example. Next to a “stump” producing the soil for sound effects stands another one supporting words with the general meaning “adhering; mass; stickiness.” Occasionally such “stumps” exchange hostages. One could well imagine a verb like cling meaning “to ring, clang,” and, sure enough, this is what German klingen means.

On this unsafe ground, one has to tread gingerly. Consider the history of Engl. clove. Clove is either “a division of the bulb of garlic, etc.” or “an evergreen tree, a flower bud from it; the spice obtained from such a bud.” Skeat did not doubt that he was dealing with two meanings of the same word and began its history with French clou “nail” (clou de girofle “clove, from the semblance to a nail”; girofle yielded Engl. gillyflower).  He cited Spanish clove “nail” and “clove.” Middle English had clow. In Skeat’s opinion, the change to clove, in the sixteenth century, was due to the influence of Italian chiovo. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (ODEE), which partly followed the OED, derived only clove “dried flower bud” from clou de girofle and added: “The change from clow is difficult to account for; it may have taken place in Anglo-Norman, clou de giving *clov/de, perhaps with the same change as in lieutenant” (an asterisk marks unattested, reconstructed forms; lieutenant is pronounced leftenant in British English). Clove “segment” is said, as in the OED, to go back to Old Engl. clufu, the plural of clufe. The word occurred as an element of at least two compounds and had cognates elsewhere in West Germanic. Especially revealing is Old Saxon cluflōc “garlic.” German Knoblauch, from klobalouch “garlic,” is an exact counterpart of cluflōc (Engl. garlic means “spear leek,” with gar– as in garfish and others).

This is a clove tree. No garlic grows on it and it has no cloven root.
This is a clove tree. No garlic grows on it and it has no cloven root.

Skeat often rewrote his etymologies in light of James Murray’s findings, but in this case he stuck to his initial conjecture and refused to separate clove1 from clove2. Not unexpectedly, he avoided giving reasons for his stubbornness. The OED online has revised the second entry, disregarded the additions made in the ODEE, and offered a new phonetic hypothesis, but the riddle of the sound change is bound to remain unsolved.

In discussing the origin of cloud, I noted that, though the ties among many kl-words are loose, they are not the flotsam and jetsam of the Indo-European vocabulary.  The moment we begin to look through the gl-list outside Germanic, we find many exact synonyms of English nouns and verbs.  Russian glei corresponds to Engl. clay (glei is a technical term; the usual gloss of clay is glina, that is, the same glei with a suffix). And since many kl-words in and outside Germanic are also synonyms, the question constantly arises whether some of them were borrowed. Opinions, naturally, differ. Some suggestions in this area are truly surprising.  German klitsch-klatsch is an interjection, and it has been surmised that French cliché goes back to the printers’ word designating the sound produced by the dropping of the matrix on the molten metal.

Among the kl-words, not yet featured but deserving a special look, are clever, cloth, clean, and cliff, and I am ready to discuss them. But I would like to know whether my fairly recent idea of presenting series rather than disjointed essays was a happy one. I offered such series on bad, god, and dog. A university professor with decades of teaching behind me, I have learned that every public speaker’s (journalist’s, instructor’s) paramount duty is to provide fun (whatever fun means). In my capacity as the author of long series do I live up to this duty? Or should I rather choose “the word of the week” and run away with it? The success of a columnist depends on the feedback from the readers. Last week, I received a letter from a stranger who said that he followed my blog and appreciated it. But one letter, like one swallow, does not a summer make, even in the middle of July. Unless I hear from disgruntled readers, I will go on with the present series, even though it is grinding to a halt. It would also be interesting to know the opinion of our readers about the illustrations. Choosing them is not as easy as it may seem.

Image credits: (1) “Cat Isolated On The White” by George Hodan, Public Domain via PublicDomainPictures. (2) “burdock” by Miroslav Vajdic, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. (3) “The clove tree in Pemba island” by  Prof. Chen Hualin, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Featured image: Garlic by Gadini, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Kari McBride

    “Whatever fun means”—good question. Care to speculate about its origins? The OED’s present attempt is a vicious circle, sending one from entry to entry but providing little insight along the way.

    In general, the linked posts are useful learning tools, as one builds on another, reinforcing deeper understanding. My kind of fun.

  2. Hessel boerboom

    I am surprised (as a dutchman) to read the meaning of klomp and klamp. They mean” wooden shoe” and “bracket or brace” , not lump and heap, as suggested.

  3. Pauntley Roope

    Dear Anatoly, fascinating series – do continue. As a complete neophyte the question of what counts as an etymological link is deeply puzzling to me. Analogies proliferate. Etymology does sometimes feel like a set of arcane rules to contain that process of proliferation by inarticulate analogy. May I offer one such example of a probable outlier. The verb to ‘cloy’, which has such an expressive mouth-feel, as of sweet stickiness (a gob stopper), does seem connected with the cleave, clew, clay series. But that may be an illusion.

  4. Gavin Wraith

    Is “grounding to a halt” a typo for “grinding to a halt”, or another difference between east and west of the Atlantic?
    I would comment more often but without a Javascript-enabled browser I cannot.
    “Cloud” is found in various place names in England meaning “hill”.
    Mending things about the house is forbidden to me, as I am deemed to be a “klamphugger”.

  5. Lizzie Furey

    Thank you for pointing this out–it was simply a typo.

    –From the OUPblog editorial staff

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *