or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, February 25, 2008

Cut and Paste

We interrupt whatever I was doing for the last couple of days to bring you this burning question:

How can it be that the word "cleave" has two completely different, and in fact precisely opposite, meanings?

It is a bafflement, isn't it? To cleave is to stick together. To cleave is to split apart. Cleavage means the division between things (such as breasts or mica), but cleaving means sticking together, unless it means cutting into pieces. It is all so strange.

Well, you didn't think I was going to leave you dangling, did you? The reason "cleave" means two things is that there are actually two entirely different words, from entirely different Indo-European roots, that just happened to come to look exactly alike.

The splitting cleave comes from IE "gleubh-", "to cut", which is also the source of "clove", the segment of garlic which can be split off from the bulb. (The spike-shaped spice known as the clove is unrelated; it's from French "clou", "nail", for obvious reasons.) "Cleft" is also from this root, and so are the "glyph" words in English, including "hieroglyphic" and "anaglyph", from Greek "glyphein", "to carve", because a glyph was a symbol carved into rock.

The joining cleave, on the other hand, comes from IE "gloi-", "to stick", which gave English a bunch of words: you will certainly have guessed that one of those words is "glue"; another is "gluten", the gluey protein in some grains, and therefore also "glutinous". (The Latin source of these is "gluten", meaning "glue".) Yet another is "clay".

Did "gloi-" also give Greek "kolla", "glue", in turn giving English "collagen", the protein which binds tissues such as skin and bones together (and also French "colle", "glue")? It came to mind, but I can't find a single source for it, so it might not be true, and I don't know enough Greek to be sure. But I suspect it did. If anyone has more information, let me know.

An old past participle of the "split" version of "cleave" was "clofen", which eventually became the uncommon but still extant past participle "cloven", now most usually seen in the word "cloven-footed". "Clover", despite being split into three leaves, is not from this same source; it appears instead to always have been that word in English, more or less--it was "claver" until the 1600s, prior to which it was Old English "clafre", which in turn was from Proto-Germanic "klaibron".


Blogger Frank said...

Words like that that have two opposite meanings are called Janus words, for they are, of course, two-faced.

Monday, February 25, 2008 9:54:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

I did not know that!

And here's a whole list of them!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008 5:42:00 AM  
Blogger parfumista5 said...

in Dutch we have "kleven" and "klieven" (the first meaning to glue, the second to split). It never hit me until now how similar these words are! cool... (the first word is pronounces with an a sound, as in favour; the second with a short ee sound, as in eek!) Cheers, Wendy PS love this blog!

Friday, April 08, 2011 8:45:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home