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The unadulterated truth about the history of the word “clean”

Its congener in Middle High German meant “brave, beautiful.” On that occasion and on several others, I noted that words may change their meaning in a truly incomprehensible, even bizarre way. I also admitted that semantic bridges are easy to construct but should be used with caution, because they tend to collapse in the middle of the river. Yet the bridge from clean to klein is rather safe.

A perfect image of a semantic bridge.
A perfect image of a semantic bridge.

The Old English for clean was clæne (with a long vowel in the root; æ had the value of a in Modern Engl. man). Dictionaries offer a long array of glosses for clæne: “pure, chaste, innocent; unencumbered, unfettered; hallowed; clear; open; honorable, true; acute, sagacious, intellectual.” All of them have the same nucleus: “clear; free from dirt, filth, or impediment.” The senses have been extracted or abstracted from various contexts, and, obviously, the list could be enriched by many more synonyms. However, one should beware of shrinking it to one or two basic words, and the three glosses given above in bold will prove their value in the analysis of German. The adverb clean, also from clæne, is not very common in today’s English, but you are clean crazy and especially I clean forgot about our appointment sound both permissible and idiomatic. Clean (adverb) means “absolutely,” as though the platter has been licked clean; compare pure nonsense, pure folly. (Russian chistyi means “clean,” while the adverb nachisto, with stress on the first syllable, means “completely”; the path from clean to empty and absolute is common.) Today, clean usually refers to concrete things. For more abstract situations clear and pure are used.

Clean is a West Germanic word with possible cognates outside Germanic. The same can be said about a few other kl-words. The Old Icelandic form both Skeat and Murray had in view can be partly disregarded, for the adjective, still extant in all the Scandinavian languages, was borrowed from German (see below), and the verb klína “to smear,” though related to clæne, needs special discussion. One can see that among the glosses for Old Engl. clæne the adjective “small” did not turn up. Nor did Old High German klein mean either “small” or “little.” There, the story began with “smooth,” hence “shining.” The next attested senses are “pure” (for instance, wine could be called klein) and “neat, dainty, delicate; high; thin (about a person’s figure and voice); slight, frail; careful; witty; clever (that is, able to make small distinctions, discriminating),” and, finally, just “small.” Some of the meanings attested in the history of German could be predicted from the English list above: consider “acute, sagacious, intellectual.” “Witty” is especially characteristic. And in German the noun Kleinod “jewel, gem” combines the old sense “dainty” with the modern sense “small.”

Licking the plate clean.
Licking the plate clean.

“Small” for klein does not antedate Early Modern German and could not be the original sense of clean and klein, especially because the related forms in Old Saxon and Old Frisian also meant “dainty.” There is an agreement among philologists that the starting point in the semantic history of clean was “smooth; shining, bright,” recorded in Old High German. The way from “smooth, bright” to “clean” seems to be natural (not predictable, but natural!). If so, the historically original sense of the Germanic adjective is most nearly preserved by English among the modern languages: though not “smooth, bright, shining,” but at least “clear, pure.”

With “bright, shining” in view, historical linguists began to look for the Indo-European root with this meaning. Some words suggested themselves at once: Latin galbus “greenish-yellow,” possibly a borrowing from Celtic, as in Irish glan “clean, pure; radiant,” Classical Greek glênos “bright object; wonder,” and even geláō “I laugh” (with transference of the idea of brightness, radiance to a spiritual state, whence the further change of meaning to “cheerfulness of mind, mirth, laughter”). Such is the wording in the Universal Dictionary of the English Language by Henry Cecil Wyld. The above reconstruction is plausible. The Greek word for “laughter” is usually associated with radiance, though from the historical perspective laughter and mirth need not be connected. (Consult, if you care, my post of 10 December 2014 on a laughing etymologist.) Looking for ancient roots is a dangerous occupation (as admitted in the previous post), and one sometimes wonders where to stop. The great Friedrich Kluge agreed that West Germanic klainiz, the progenitor of clean and klein, meant “smooth” but went a step farther and connected the root gel– with that in Greek gloiós “resin, glue” (his gloss was “fat oil”). He argued that the initial meaning of the Germanic adjective was “bright and shining with grease, oily.”

Friedrich Kluge, a man with a shining mind and a clear vision of word origins.
Friedrich Kluge, a man with a shining mind and a clear vision of word origins.

Grease! The joy of it! Gloiós is, naturally, related to Latin gluten “glue,” from which, by way of Old French, English has glue. Another sticky kl-word! Nothing in this group, outside the onomatopoeic department, seems to be gluten-free (GF). One can return to Engl. clay, Russian glei, and the other words familiar to us by this time. Kluge’s idea became dogma almost immediately after it was offered. At present, etymologists are divided on the issue and, in reconstructing the past of clean, set up either the root meaning “to shine” or the one meaning “to stick.” But since “shining” presupposes being covered with a sticky substance, the semantic result turns out to be almost the same.

Old Engl. clæne became Modern Engl. clean by a series of regular phonetic changes (long æ by umlaut from ā, from ai, became open ē, which yielded the modern vowel by the Great Vowel Shift; the spelling ea, as opposed to ee, still reminds us of the open vowel in Middle English). But in the south of the German-speaking world the adjective klīn is widespread. It is a synonym of klein, and its ī causes trouble. Most probably, klīn is not a variant but a synonym of klein. Now is the time to touch on the Scandinavian words allied to clean. Old Icelandic klénn “fine, luxurious” and the similar adjectives in the continental languages are not native there, but the verb klína “to smear” is. By this time, its cognates outside Scandinavian look familiar: Old Irish glenen “to stick,” Russian glei and glina, and Latin glūs, all of them meaning “clay,” along with others, mentioned above or in the previous essays.

Quibbling aside, we can state with some confidence that clean is a West Germanic adjective with gl-congeners outside Germanic. Of course, this confidence will last only until a better suggestion displaces it. The grade ī is represented by a regional German adjective and an Icelandic verb. Why German has klein und klīn remains unknown, but words for “small” tend to be “sound symbolic” and are often pronounced on a high note, especially in addressing children. Besides, the vowel i typically crops up in adjectives referring to small size. It is anybody’s guess whether any of those facts has anything to do with the second German adjective. Be that as it may, our English withers are un-wrung.

Image credits: (1) “Broken bridge” by fialex, Public Domain via Pixabay. (2) Chattanooga – “Lookout Mountain – Rock City – Fairyland Caverns – Mother Goose Village – Jack Sprat” by Jared, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. (3) Friedrich Kluge by unknown, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Featured image: “Sailor Navy” by skeeze, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. MK

    THis is very interesting. I was also trying to find why in English we clean “up”. None of the other languages I know (I’m not a linguist) have this kind of form.

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