v. To split or sever something or as if with a sharp instrument.
v. To cling, adhere or stick fast to something; used with to or unto.

It’s a perfectly valid question, and I know you’re thinking it: why the hell is there a word that has two completely opposite (non-ironic, non-sarcastic) meanings? If you didn’t realize it had two mutually-exclusive meanings, just imagine all of the uses of “cleave” in the Bible in the sense of things coming together…

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

…and then of splitting apart

And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.

Normally, I’d say you could ascribe this kind of wonkiness to the fact that English is a wonky language, but in fact the etymologies of this word cleave so closely together that it’s little wonder it’s confusing1.

In fact, “cleave” in its first sense (that of splitting things apart) comes from the Old English clÄ“ofan, from Proto-Germanic *kleubanan, and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European *gleubh-, which indicated a cutting or slicing. The KJV Bible’s uses was a strong past tense form that was still in use at the time of the translation.

“Cleave” in the sense of things coming together is from the Old English clifian (or possibly cleofian), from the West Germanic *klibajanan, and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European *gloi- (“to stick”).

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§2740 · October 8, 2008 · Tags: , ·

2 Comments to “Wednesday’s Word: cleave”

  1. Conor says:

    One of my favorites yet! Got corrected by a friend the other day for saying, "Cleave in two." He aptly suggested that only "Cleave in twain" would really get the job done.

    This was really one of the most informative WWs I’ve read. Thanks, man.

  2. Ben says:

    Twain was one of the few survivors of the doomed gender of nouns in Middle English. Once again, you can thank King James for the fact that you know of it at all.

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