The lighter side of editing

The lighter side of editing

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Word Histories: Clues from Clews

Sometimes, just for kicks, I like to browse through dictionaries and other wordy books to see what fun things pop up. There’s always something interesting.

Theseus and the Minotaur.
The hero used a clew to
find his way out of the labyrinth.
Illustration by Vasiliy Voropaev via Adobe Stock.
For example, on a recent dip into The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, I learned that the word clue comes from clew. These two words were once simply different spellings of a word that meant “a ball of yarn or thread.”

Now you may be wondering, as I was, how a ball of yarn morphs into something that helps a clever detective solve a mystery. Remember the story of Theseus and the Minotaur? Here’s the ultra-abridged version: The Greek hero Theseus ventured into the Cretan Labyrinth, unrolling a ball of string (a clew) as he went, slew the horrible Minotaur, and then followed the string to find his way out again. In other words, he used a clew to solve a problem. He also later ditched Princess Ariadne, who came up with the whole clew idea to begin with. Hey, heroes can be jerks too. 

A clew becoming a clue?
Photo by uckyo via Adobe Stock.

Later, the spelling clue came to refer to those bits of information used by detectives. A clew is something used by knitters (although I am a knitter, sort of, and wasn’t familiar with this meaning; I normally refer to my yarn as “that tangled mess at the bottom of my knitting bag”). Clew can also still mean “clue” or “a metal loop on a lower corner of a sail,” proving, as if we didn’t already know, that sometimes English is strange.