Linguistic Clues

September 8, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

According to Merriam-Webster, a clue is:

  1. something that guides through an intricate procedure or maze of difficulties or
  2. a piece of evidence that leads one toward the solution of a problem

Clue offers one example of how language changes and is, therefore, the subject of today's blog. I love this word because it visually expresses its meaning better than the string of the four letters c-l-u-e. Somehow this word morphed from clew – or a ball of yarn or thread – into clue (as defined above). Both words are still in use today, but clue exists in the mainstream, while clew is known only to those interested in fiber arts. To understand how this happens, we have to reach back into ancient mythology and understand one of the myths of young Theseus.

King Minos of Crete demanded yearly payments from Athens in the form of seven men and seven women to feed his Minotaur. In the third year of the tribute, Theseus, son of King Aegeus, asked to be sent as one of the seven male pledges. Therefore, fourteen young Athenian men and women entered the Labyrinth with the Minotaur. No one had ever escaped the Labyrinth or the Minotaur, until Theseus. He, of course, killed the beast. As happens with so many of the myths involving heroes, however, he required some help to navigate the Labyrinth. Ariadne, King Minos's daughter, instantly fell in love with Theseus. She gave him a spool of thread – or a clew – which unraveled as he traveled through the Labyrinth. After slaying the bull, he followed the magical thread back to the entrance. Theseus sailed away from Crete with both his pride and his prize: Ariadne. (Unfortunately, Theseus's gratitude did not extend very far because he soon abandoned Ariadne on the shores of Naxos. Do not worry about Ariadne, however, as Dionysus soon rescued her.)

The first use of clew dates back to somewhere near 900. Originally recorded in Old English as cliwen or cleowen, over time, the final 'n' sound dropped off and became clew in Middle English. This word is still used today to describe yarn. Clue, in the sense of figuring out a puzzle, first came about in the 1600s and now exists as a stand-alone concept. The OED credits a poem from Michael Drayton in 1605 with the first metaphorical usage. Drayton wrote, “Loosing the clew which led us safely in, [We] Are lost within this Labyrinth of lust.” Of course today, we take for granted that this concept has long existed. For example, it has become the title for mysteries, games and children's television shows. In so doing, it becomes a literal example of its own definition. Walking backward through language gives literal clues to the history of culture and the human mind. For some reason, the metaphor of walking a labyrinth resonated with a large majority or English speakers. As the word gained in popularity, the more abstract definition slowly replaced the physicality of any labyrinth.

I have this theory that human understanding is proportionally linked to our separation from nature. This perceived independence from nature actually moves us toward a more figurative language – and yet, perhaps deprives us of the ability (or interest) to understand the etymology of basic words. As daily pace increases, we are forced to rely upon derivatives of nature – much the same as our language. “Clue” is a simplistic example of this notion in which the concept is driven by an actual object. It is no coincidence that clue comes from a literal cord or tether – something that binds us to oral traditions – yet, I doubt that many people know its history. That our current understanding of clue is a figure of speech, or that it comes from ancient Greek myths. Just as I did not. And having discovered this new treasure, I am overwhelmed with the way that language carries such a depth of knowledge.

Why is it important to think about the reasons that figurative speech might become more common than literal? Why is it important to understand the etymology of the word? How does the history of the word enhance our definition of clue? These are questions that I ask every time I am working with translation...which makes it painfully clear why translation is so slow and laborious. Each word is a wormhole in its own way. But it also gives a better understanding of just how rich we are in words.

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