essay · textiles in literature

A clew to the past

“Desynonymy” is the curious term Samuel Taylor Coleridge applies to the growth of human languages. In Chapter IV of his Biographia Literaria  (1817), Coleridge argues that “in all societies there exists an instinct of growth, a certain collective, unconscious good sense working progressively to desynonymize those words originally of the same meaning […].” Similar divisions can sometimes divide words from themselves, often to the end that a word’s concrete, material meaning and its metaphorical or abstract senses no longer inhabit the same word. My favorite example of this process is also an apt starting point for considering why it is worthwhile to study the histories of texts and textiles together.

Imagine you were an Anglo-Saxon girl, working with a spindle to produce yarn that you could weave into clothing. Your spinning done, you would wind the yarn into a ball, to keep it from tangling into a mess. In your native Old English, you would call this ball of thread a cliewen. Eventually, you would teach this word to your children, and they to theirs, and so for centuries the word would serve its humble and necessary purpose, arriving in Middle English as a cleue (or clew, or clowe)While it lost a syllable during its journey from the early to high Middle Ages, the word has now gained a figurative sense, viz. a bit of information or idea to guide one’s way. From the literal (and very sensible) practice of using a thread to guide someone out of a tricky place (think Theseus and the Labyrinth), it is not difficult to see how people began to use this picture to describe how one might be led out of an intellectual or spiritual difficulty.

By the time the word enters modern English, however, the physical and figurative meanings of this word begin to split. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the familiar spelling clue appears in the 1590s, and within thirty years, this spelling had largely shed the sense of “yarn,” and had come to mean only the figurative sense: something which points the way out of a mystery or difficulty. In some dialects, clew lingers as the term for a physical ball of thread, although the word has, in most of the English-speaking world, fallen into obscurity.

I love tracing the history of clues and clews, for it is a fundamental example of a process at work throughout literature and language: humans look to the common, sustaining crafts of their lives in order to explain our intellectual and spiritual existence. The analogies are never perfect, and the tensions between craft and concept are real. Nevertheless, it is this tension that sustains the warp-threads of much theology, poetry, and philosophy. Upon this loom, we weave garments against the cold.


“Cleue.” The Middle English Dictionary Online. University of Michigan. 24 April 2014. Web. 4 March 2014. (direct link)

“Clew.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Web. 4 March 2014.

“Cliewen.” Hall, J.R. Clark. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. 4th ed. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1960. Print.

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