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shameless pleading





Clutch, in the

Pedal to the metal.

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering about the origin of the usage of “coming through in the clutch” or “clutch performer,” as is commonly heard in sports. How did the characteristic of being effective in high pressure situations become associated with this term? In the circles I roll in this term has become a popular one, and we will often use it as a compliment of the highest order for an individual or an act (e.g., “That guy’s beard is clutch”). Therefore, it would be particularly interesting to me to learn the development of it.– Jordan Blasetti.

That’s a good question. Your use of “clutch” as a positive adjective is a new one on me, and if it attained general usage, it would mark an abrupt departure from the existing use of “clutch” to mean “crucial, stressful moment.” At present, the only positive use of “clutch” I can find is the term “clutch artist,” a fairly rare term for a truck driver (referring to expertise with the “clutch” pedal).

To begin at the beginning, “clutch” first appeared in English in the 14th century (from the Middle English “cloke,” claw) with the meaning “the claw of a beast or bird of prey.” By the 16th century, we were using it in the sense of “the human hand,” especially in the plural and with overtones of cruelty or danger, still heard in phrases such as “in the clutches of the criminals.” In tandem with the verb “to clutch,” the noun eventually moved on to meaning simply “very tight grip on, or desperate grab at, something.” The mechanical sort of “clutch,” which connects or disconnects power from an engine, dates to the early 18th century and takes its name from its tight grip when engaged.

The use of “clutch” to mean “a high-pressure situation or critical moment” was definitely popularized in sports, particularly baseball, where the term was in use by the 1920s. A poster to the mailing list of the American Dialect Society a few years ago suggested that the usage may have been drawn from the famous poem “Invictus” by the English poet W.E. Henley, which contains the line “In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud” (“fell” meaning “cruel or fierce,” as in “one fell swoop”). Inasmuch as “Invictus” (Latin for “unconquered”) was part of the standard English curriculum in many schools of the period, it’s certainly possible that the word simply popped into the mind of a sportswriter and grew from there.

But it’s equally likely that “in the clutch” meaning in the “moment of crisis” arose as a variant of “in the pinch,” also meaning “at a critical juncture,” which had been used in baseball since the first years of the 20th century. This “pinch” also gave us “pinch hitter,” a substitute batter who steps in when the team is in an especially tight spot.

6 comments to Clutch, in the

  • Pete VanderLaan

    A clutch is also a type of purse, not to mention the obvious, a clutch of eggs. Both birds and purse holders try to hang on to their immediate charges with tenacity under pressure.

  • John Doe

    The idea of using clutch as a positive adjective may come from the term “clutch performer.” This term refers to one who performs in the clutch, much like a circus performer refers to one who performs in a circus. Instead, it would seem that people thought the word clutch was describing the word performer, that it was an adjective that could be used do describe someone who performs well in tight situations. I have done absolutely no research, but whenever I hear or use the term as an adjective, that is the meaning I associate with it.

  • Michael Pascoe

    Clutch and choke are both early techniques of driving. I am not certain how that pertains to sports, but because both words are used in each, it makes sense that there must be some sort of link.

  • Neil Frowe

    The noun clutch, as in a clutch of eggs, derives from an old word ‘clekken’ meaning ‘to hatch.’ In this sense, it has nothing to do with ‘holding on to’ although as a folk derivation that idea is convincing enough.

  • Bob Saget

    Thanks for this! I had a moment where I realized the name for a group of baby birds lined up with what I’ve been doing with my first manual transmission. I’m going to feel a lot cooler now, imagining an eagle’s claw slipping and sker’idding to a full pull. You may well have extended the life of my vehicle, with this new appreciation of the harshness of the word, so thank you.

  • Justin

    a bit (a bit… lol) late to the party, i’ve always considered the word “clutch” in this context was a reference to the metaphorical clutch of the performer.

    Usually in the high octane big-stress moments, high-level skill is required to even maintain a footing, and skill checks layered over the top of that foundation of effort are what require people to “clutch,” as in, someone who grasped victory from the jaws of defeat.

    The usage of the word might actually be the grip of the claw. So as to refer to the competitor/performer as a beast who “held on” (with the cloke) to the moment until an opportunity for success presented itself, and that opportunities was “clutched” too.

    This is just riffing, obviously.

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