Fun Etymology Tuesday – Clue

And so, another Tuesday has come our way and with it comes another Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is “clue”. While it’s ultimate origin is fairly straightforward – it being a native Germanic word – this little noun has undergone a rather interesting semantic shift.

You see, “clue”, meaning anything that guides or directs you in an intricate case, is actually a special use of a revised spelling of “clew”, meaning a ball of thread or yarn! The sense shift is originally seen in reference to the clew of thread given by Ariadne, the daughter of king Minos of Crete, to Theseus to use as a guide out of the Labyrinth in Greek mythology. Around 1620, the meaning of the word had adopted the figurative sense of “that which points the way”, without regard to labyrinths.

But what about the spelling? How did -ew(e) become -ue? Well, here, you can see some real French influence – you see, some words borrowed from French were spelt -ew in Middle English, but -ue or -eu in French. Eventually, this spelling spread and came to influence native forms too: you also see it in words like “hue” and “true”. In our case, the spelling “clue” is first attested around the mid-15th century.

A final side note: the sense that “clue” may indicate something which a bewildered person does not have is a late sense of the word and didn’t really occur until ca. 1948.

That’s it for today’s FunEty – now you have a clue! (Sorry, couldn’t resist).

Don’t forget to join us on Thursday when we welcome our very first guest blogger here at the HLC! See you then!

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