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A job for the OED

Posted by R. Berg on March 10, 2002

In Reply to: Cleave - should I stay around or split? posted by Marian on March 10, 2002

: : : I suspect that there are two entirely different word roots, diametrically opposed in meaning, that have given rise to the somewhat archaic English verb "to cleave". It can mean to cling or adhere - "For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife;" Mark 10:7 and numerous other Biblical and religious examples. This form of the verb seems to have an entirely regular declension - "I cleave, I have cleaved, I cleaved" and so on.

: : : Of course it can mean to split apart, usually with some vehemence - "to cleave in two", "cleft asunder", "cloven", "a cleft in the rockface" and so on. This verb, as is so common with verbs of motion, has an entirely irregular declension - "I cleave, I have cloven, I cleft" and so on.

: : : The word roots must therefore be very different, but looking at the word formation, and particularly the "ea" vowel string, I suspect that neither is Latin-based - they both just smell Germanic to me. Can anyone confirm this, and when both verbs came into general use? Was one later to the party than the other one? It's an unusual occurrence for such a thing to happen and one can easily imagine major misunderstandings that might have occurred - if there were sitcom writers in the days of yore, they'd have had a field day with this, I am sure.

: : ...and because it's way too early on Sunday morning, it's just occurred to me that if Punk bands had been around with the aforementioned sitcom writers in the Middle Ages, then the Clash's seminal classic "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" could have been written with the far less catchier title simply being "Should I Cleave?"

: I wonder if the word entails the idea of a whole being the sum of its parts. A man cleaves unto his wife, meaning that the two of them become one. A cleaver is used to make parts out of something that was previously whole. A woman's cleavage is all about the space between her two breasts, which are nevertheless part of one body.

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
How the meaning of "cleave" grew so unclear . . .

They began as different verbs, both Germanic. The OED has separate entries.

From CLEAVE 1:
Common Teut.: OE. cliofan, cleofan, pa. t. cleaf, pl. clufon, pa. pple. clofen . . . corresp. to pre-Teutonic *gleubh-, in Gr. [gamma, lambda, upsilon, phi, hyphen] 'to cut with a knife, carve' and perh. L. glub- 'to peel, flay'.
The early ME. inflexion was 'cleoven', . . . 'cloven'. Assimilation to the pa. pple. soon changed the plural of the pa. t. to 'cloven', 'clove', and by 14th c. 'clove' was extended to the singular . . . . A weak inflexion 'cleaved' came into use in 14th c.; and subsequently a form 'cleft' . . . .From the 14th c. the inflexional forms of this verb have tended to run together with those of CLEAVE 2 'to stick'. . . .

From CLEAVE 2:
OE. had two verbs: clifan str. . . . and clifan, cleofian wk. The former was a Com. Teut. strong vb., in OS. bikliban to adhere . . . , OHG. chliban (MHG. rare, kliban), to adhere, stick, ON. klifa to clamber, climb by clinging . . . perhaps ultimately f. simpler root kli- to stick; cf. CLIMB, CLAY, CLAM.
The final predominance of 'cleve' rather than 'clive' as the ME. form made the present stem identical in form with that of CLEAVE v. 1 to split. Hence their inflexional forms were naturally also confused, and to some extent blended or used indiscriminately. The pa. t. 'clave' attached itself in the 14th c. to both. . . .

There's more, but that's enough typing for one day.

First quotation for each of the verbs is dated about 1000.

Words that have opposite meanings are called contronyms.