06 March 2012

Hewing and Gluing

Have you ever been struck by a cleaver? No? Good!

How about by the word cleaver? I have. The verb cleave is something I’ve pondered for quite a few years (okay, not continuously). It can mean one thing, but also pretty much its exact opposite: "to cut apart" and "to hold together".

There are a number of things going on here... First, the cutting, chopping (or chopped) sense is in these words: to cleave, cleaver, cloven, cleft and probably cliff, and of course, cleavage. *

Speculating a little, I wonder if clover is related (with its distinctly separated or cloven leaves). Stretching a bit further afield, there’s also clove, which I believe takes its name from the French word clou, for “nail”, which the little pungent spicey thing resembles almost to a T. (Hint: nails are for pounding.)

There’s possibly even more. If, as a certain eminent linguist of my acquaintance likes to point out, “b” = “v”, then what about clobber, and from that a club? A club, in addition to being a weapon, is also what English speakers call the suit of cards that looks like a clover but the French call trefle, from trefoil or “three leaves”).

Is it just a coincidence that all of these words have some apparent kinship revolving around the concept of cutting, chopping, or hitting? Read on...

This cutting/chopping/separating idea is what most people today get from these words. But there’s another conceptual use of cleave that survives in older English and modern poetical or oratorical styles. There are phrases such as to cleave to your partner and cleaving to a path, for instance. Both of these phrases mean “to stick to...”, which is decidedly not akin to cutting, chopping, or hitting. **

I have fewer related words to show for this meaning of cleave, but that doesn’t diminish the puzzle for me. (Hint: that was foreshadowing.)

I think it’s pretty clear that this older “stick to” concept of cleave is related to the modern German verb kleben, which means “to stick, affix, glue”. I don’t know enough German to know whether there are kleb- words that also mean “to cut, chop, separate”.

But I do know another German word that somehow brings us back to the “cut apart–stick together” dichotomy: hauen. This verb means “to chop, cut, strike”. In fact, it resembles in no small measure our English hew, meaning the same thing. Again, it’s not part of the conversational lexicon for today’s English speakers, but it exists in phrases like rough-hewn or even to hew a path through a thicket or whatever.

Here’s where the puzzle, or “coincidence” gets most interesting. *** Because in the same sense that we have cleave to a path or cleave to your partner, we ALSO have hew to a path or hew to a line (“stay the course”)!

Huh? On one hand we have a word, cleave, that seems to come into English through German (though undoubtedly it’s an IE root) and can mean both “chop” and “stick together”. On the other hand we have an apparently very different word, hew, that seems to come into English though German and can mean both “chop” and “stick together” -- not just literally, but in the poetically idiomatic expressions: cleave/hew to a path.

How can two apparently unrelated words mean, on the one hand, one thing, and on the other, the exact opposite, in a poetical, figurative sense?

I suspect the answer is that cleave and hew are not as unrelated as they at first appear.

That still leaves the question of meaning one thing and its opposite... But, since this post has already clobbered you over the head with a lot of words, I think I’ll save the obligatory, revelatory trip to my OED for another time and just leave you with this thought:

Instead of asking at the start of this blog post whether you’d ever been struck by a cleaver, it seems I could have also asked if you’d ever been STUCK by a cleaver.

- o - o - 

* For readers who may remember that this blog is about words and pictures, I'm sorry to disappoint you on this one. (Oh, alright. Look here.)

** Unless you have to chop down trees to clear a path, beat up rival suitors to claim a spouse, or cut in on someone to dance with a desired partner.

** Cue daughter’s sigh: “Actually interesting? Or merely Dad interesting?”


  1. And what are we to conclude about Mr. Cleaver then, based on all this new etymological info?? :)
    But seriously, it's super interesting stuff--i also am a word-origin geek :)

  2. That is really pretty cool! Enjoyed reading this! :)