Word of the Day: Clue

Word of the Day

Today’s word of the day comes courtesy of The History of English Podcast by Kevin Stroud (https://historyofenglishpodcast.com/). Mr. Stroud began his podcast in June of 2012, and it has continued monthly since then. He is not a linguist or a historian, at least not professionally. He is actually a practicing attorney, which just goes to show that good things can come from the most unlikely sources.

The word is clue. You probably have more than just a clue as to what clue means, but how it got there is what is interesting. The original spelling of the word was actually clew. In Middle English it was clewe, and the Old English was cliewen. In Old English it referred to a “’sphere, ball, skein, ball of thread or yarn,’ probably from West Germanic *kleuwin (source also of Old Saxon cleuwin, Dutch kluwen), from Proto-Germanic *kliwjo-, perhaps from a PIE *gleu- ‘gather into a mass, conglomerate.’”

During the Middle English period, when Old English and Norman French were blending together into the creole (a blending of two or more languages that becomes the native language [the L1] of a people group) that is modern English, some words were borrowed into English that ended in –ue or –eu in French, words such as blue. But in Middle English these words were generally spelled with –ew, a combination more familiar to the Anglo-Saxons. But in the early 1400s, as the Chancery Clerks, the group responsible for official government documents, transitioned from French to English, they began to incorporate French spellings for a lot of words that had come from French and been Anglicized. In addition, however, they also began to Frenchify the spelling of common English words. Thus when the Middle English blew was reformed to match its French original of blue, the English word clew was Frenchified into clue. The clue spelling is first attested in the mid-15th century.

But the definition of clue stayed the same until the 1590s, when we first find it used to mean something that directs one to the solution of a problem. So how did a word which meant a ball of thread or yard come to mean a guide to the solution of a crime?

The ancient Greeks, particularly the ones in Mycenae, had an on-going feud with the Minoans, the people who lived on the island of Crete. The Minoans had a legendary king named Minos, about whom there are a number of stories. One story was that Minos had a creature, the Minotaur, who was half man and half bull. Minos had ensconced this Minotaur at the middle of a maze, called a labyrinth. In a skirmish or perhaps by assassination, the Myceneans had killed Minos’s son, Androgeus. In return, Minos demanded that Mycenae send 7 young men and 7 maidens every 9 years to Crete to be fed to the Minotaur. The king of Mycenae, Aegeus, had a son named Theseus. Theseus took the place of one of the young men on one of these excursions, and with the help of Minos’s daughter Ariadne, he entered the labyrinth, killed the Minotaur, and escaped. The way he escaped was this: on the advice of Daedalus, the builder of the labyrinth, Theseus took a ball of thread with him. He tied one end to a post at the entrance, allowed it thread out as he walked, and then followed the thread back to the opening once he had killed the Minotaur.

This story was very popular in England during the late Middle English and early Modern English periods, as were a lot of classical legends. Thus in this way a clew gradually became a clue. Now, I was not trained as a linguist—what I know of linguistics is just stuff I’ve picked up along the way. I do know that linguists have different explanations for semantic change (changes in the meanings of words). For instance, generalization (or broadening or extension) describes the process whereby a word that refers to something quite specific is broadened to refer to a much larger group of things. For instance, the word dog in Middle English referred to just one particular and very powerful breed of hound (the Old English word generally referring to canines), but dog replaced hound as the general term. Narrowing (or specialization or restriction) describes the process whereby a word that refers to something very specific is gradually restricted in its meaning. For instance, the word deer in Old and Middle English (OE deor) originally referred to any wild animal with four legs (and sometimes it was used even more broadly than that). The Old English word for what we think of as a deer was heorot (ModE hart). But the process of narrowing actually began in the Old English period and is complete today: deer refers to just one particular animal. Interestingly, hart has also narrowed to meaning specifically a male deer with horns (as opposed to a hind, a female deer, or a fawn, a baby deer).

It seems, then, that the word clew, meaning a ball or skein of thread, first underwent narrowing, so that it referred specifically to the ball of thread used in the way that Theseus used it, and then generalization, so that it referred to anything to could lead one to the solving of a problem.

If you are interested in linguistics or in the history of the English language or just in history, I recommend taking a listen to David Stroud’s History of the English Language Podcast. It is really much more about the history than about linguistics, though he does engage in some linguistic analysis. But it is interesting.

Today’s image is a vase painting that dates from the middle of the 6th century BCE. It is attributed to the Athenian potter Nikosthenes. The description says, “Theseus grabs the bull-headed Minotaur by the horn as he drives a sword into its breast. Blood spurts from the beast’s wound. The combatants are flanked by three of the sacrificial Athenian youths and maidens” (https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/T34.9.html).

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