Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Black and white photo of Clever Hans the horse

Clever Hans and beyond

Last week, I wrote a short blog post on the word fool and related matters. Not unexpectedly, an idea occurred to me to devote the next post to the word clever. But when I opened my folders, I realized that I had already discussed this adjective. Unfortunately, all my attempts to find the old discussion proved futile: I could not remember what that post was called, and the search produced no results. Therefore, I decided that since even I failed to recall what I said years ago, our readers would hardly be more successful and accuse me of self-plagiarism. Also, today, I’ll probably write the story of clever somewhat differently from what I did “once upon a time,” though the backbone of the etymology (the solution) is bound to remain the same. However, if someone uncovers that post and tells me where to find it, I’ll be very grateful and compare the two versions with amusement. Whatever Heraclitus may have thought about this subject, stepping into the same water twice is not such a bad thing. After all, this blog (Oxford Etymologist) came into being on 1 March 2006, many Wednesdays ago.

Stepping into the same water many times and enjoying it.
Photo via Unsplash (public domain)

I began last week’s post by saying that, surprisingly, fool, the main English word for “stupid person,” is a loan from Romance. Nor is clever a native word (or so it seems). Its history remained obscure for a long time. For starters, it may be useful to look at a short list of English words beginning with cl-. We notice almost at once that many of them refer either to noise (cluck, clamor, clatter, and so forth) or to clenching, cleaving, clipping, clawing, and their likes. Regardless of this allusion to sound symbolism, it can be predicted that at one time, clever referred to physical sharpness, rather than sagacity. Such is the most common way of words referring to mental processes.

English clever surfaced in texts in the sixteenth century but was so rare that our earliest etymologists did not know it. As late as 1755, Samuel Johnson called the adjective clever vulgar. The Reverend H. J. Todd, who reworked Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in 1827, defined clever as “dexterous, skillful; just, fit, proper, commodious; well-shaped, handsome [handsome, that is, again “dexterous, handy”; we have forgotten the origin of this adjective],” commented: “This is a low word, scarcely ever used but in burlesque or conversation; and applied to any thing [sic] a man likes, without a settled meaning.” Without a settled meaning! A cousin of thingy or gizmo…

It seems that in no Old Germanic language was there a word meaning exactly what English clever and German klug “clever” (another word beginning with kl– and of disputed etymology) mean today. From the etymological point of view, perhaps witty and wise “learned, highly intelligent; possessing wit” (both old and related) come closest to our notion of “clever.” Clever, it appears, penetrated English from regional speech or another language, or slang. By the end of the nineteenth century, the riddle seems to have been solved. On 6 April 1889, The Academy, a highly respected and widely read periodical, published a short letter by the philologist Eiríkr Magnússon (an Icelander residing in England), who cited Danish dialectal kløver, klever “clever, able, apt,” East Frisian (that is, really Low German) klüver “skillful, accomplished, lively, nimble, etc.,” along with the North-Country verb clever “to climb,” East Yorkshire clavver “to clamber,” Icelandic klifra, and Danish klavre, which “presumably points to the primitive sense (now lost?) of ‘clever’ having been ‘good at climbing, agile, nimble, lithe, &c.” (p.240).

Two cl-figures: a cleaver and a climber.
L: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED). R: Raw Pixel (public domain)

Yet in all fairness, it should be said that the first lexicographer who saw the light in tracing the origin of clever was probably Joseph E. Worcester (A Dictionary of the English Language…., 1860). Etymology was not his main concern, but all English dictionary makers found it necessary to inform their readers about the origin of the word they included. (In retrospect, we realize how risky and misleading that practice was.) Worcester wrote: “Derived evidently from the verb to cleave. It is curious to observe that several of the words which describe the various mental powers are derived from words signifying ‘to split, cleave, or separate….’” He referred to E. Jane Whately’s book English Synonyms, edited by Archbishop Richard Whately. Discussing etymologies in dictionaries of synonyms was also common in the nineteenth century.

The next step was made by Hensleigh Wedgwood, now all but forgotten, but at one time an important predecessor and successful opponent of Walter W. Skeat. Even though his way of discovery (it depended on semantic parallels and often ignored sound correspondences) has little to recommend it, his ability to find such parallels in different languages and dialects was unrivaled. He cited the Old English form cliver “claw, clutch,” and suggested that clever had developed its sense from “snatching, catching.” Between 1859-1865 (Wedgwood’s huge volume appeared in installments) and 1888, Wedgwood’s dictionary ran into four editions and enjoyed considerable popularity, but I am not sure that Eiríkr Magnússon consulted it. After all, his clever (!) derivation of the English adjective was not significantly different from Wedgwood’s. By contrast, Wedgwood must almost certainly have had Worcester’s dictionary on his desk. Yet there is no reference to it in his work. This cavalier method of etymological inquiry (ignoring or neglecting the predecessors) is the curse of the profession. People come up with “suggestions,” sometimes correct, more often wrong, naively believing that they had no predecessors. Alas, one is seldom the first anywhere.

You cannot always be the first.
Via Get Archive (public domain)

The now forgotten English adjective (!) deliver meant almost the same as clever, and several researchers traced clever to that word, even though d’l– would not have become cl-. Even Skeat defended this etymology in the first (1882) edition of his dictionary. The appearance of the volume of the OED with the adjective clever put an end to a good deal of unprofitable speculation, and in 1906, Skeat brought out a useful summary of some (some, not all) previous attempts to explain the intractable adjective (Notes and Queries, Series 10, No. VI, pp 25-26). Naturally, he gave up his old derivation of clever from French deliver “quick, nimble,” but he mentioned it as an afterthought even in his last (1911) edition of A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Indeed, the sense of clever ~ cliver may have been influenced, to at least a small extent, by the rhyming homonym, pronounced as d’liver. Be that as it may, the story has a happy end. And now, to celebrate a rare victory over the obscurity of the past, let me offer a modest dessert. English smart is related to German Schmerz “pain” (noun).Predictably the Old English verb meant “to feelpain, to suffer for.” Centuries later, Uriah Heep, when he received a box on the ear, predicted that David Copperfield would “smart for it.” The development of the adjective smart is noteworthy: “biting; stinging; causing acute pain”; almost at the same time, “brisk, vigorous”; now mainly “very clever, highly intelligent” (did this sense originate in American English?), and more rarely “saucy.” Last week, I referred to the process, known as the deterioration of meaning. The way from “causing acute pain” to “clever” is, I believe, an example of the amelioration of meaning. It is good to know that not everything in our life rushes toward destruction.

Featured image: Wilhelm von Osten and Clever Hans the horse, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

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