Word of the Week: Cleave

Cleave – Delightfully complicated

Drop everything you’re doing – pause in the middle of scrolling down your Facebook feed, put down that sandwich which you’re just about to dig into – because you have to read about this modest little verb which defies all linguistic convention.

So, the primary listed meaning of the infinitive ‘to cleave’ (a transitive verb) is ‘to split or sever (something), especially along a natural line or grain’. From that you also have semi-boring scientific meanings, like for a molecule ‘to split by breaking a particular bond’ or for a cell to divide. Then there’s the slightly more metaphorical ‘to make way through (something) forcefully, as if by splitting apart’. So, a woodchopper can cleave wood, and a person can cleave through a crowd – they both come from the same semantic family.

Lovely – we’ve got ourselves a pretty nice word already, with one technical, one scientific and one fairly literary meaning. But it doesn’t stop there. (If anyone needs to take a breather at this point and calm down before continuing, please feel free. I know this kind of excitement is pretty unprecedented on a run-of-the-mill Sunday.)

The meaning of the intransitive verb ‘cleave’, which Oxford Online English Dictionary calls a ‘literary verb’, is to ‘stick fast to’ or (more figuratively) ‘adhere strongly to (a particular pursuit or belief)’, or ‘become very strongly emotionally attached to or involved with’. This one is usually followed by ‘to’, as in ‘she has always cleaved to these principles’.

So, the two forms of this verb, distinguishable only by their transivity (whether you can do them to someone/something or not), have virtually opposite meanings.

They both have Germanic origins, the latter specifically West Germanic, so both derive from the old English ‘clēofan’, which is related to the Dutch ‘klieven’ and the German ‘klieben’ (which I assume is where the modern German ‘kleben’, to stick or adhere to, comes from). But whereas the first’s etymology is pretty straightforward, and ends there, the second’s is more of a mis-mash. It seems that a muddle of the Old English ‘clēofan’ as well as ‘clifian’, plus the Dutch ‘kleven’, German ‘kleben’, and English ‘clay’ and ‘climb’ formed this second meaning.

And, just to add a further linguistic nightmare of a plot twist, users have a choice in the past tense between ‘cleaved’ and ‘clove’, and between ‘cleaved’, ‘cloven’ and ‘cleft’ for the past participle. But the participle choice only applies to the first meaning; if we’re talking about having stuck to something (rather than having split something), it has to be ‘cleaved’.

All I can say is that I feel pretty gosh-darn sorry for the lexicographer who had to write that entry.


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