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shameless pleading

Cleave

Things fall apart, or not.

Dear Word Detective: I was reading a story about the Round Table the other day. In this novel there was a discussion about the past tense of “cleave.” It ended with a fish being “clooved,” and there was no definite answer. What is the past tense of “cleave”? I thought it might be “cleaved,” “clave,” “claved” “clove” or, I think my best guess, “cloven.” I couldn’t find out. I don’t have a good dictionary, either. My parents can’t help me on this one. Can you? — Cora.

No good dictionary? Horrors. A house without a good dictionary is like a house without … I was going to say “phone book,” but I can’t remember the last time I saw one around here. Well, anyway, you actually do have access to a couple of good, trustworthy dictionaries online. One is at Merriam-Webster.com (or just m-w.com). The other is at Yahoo Reference, and if you manage to navigate through through the unnecessarily byzantine interface at education.yahoo.com, you’ll find the excellent American Heritage Dictionary (which used to be parked at Bartleby.com). You should also check the website of your local public library; many libraries offer their members free access to the Oxford English Dictionary Online.

“Cleave” is, as you’ve already discovered, a tricky little word. It’s often cited as an “auto-antonym,” a word which can mean its own opposite, because “cleave” can be used to mean both “to split apart” and “to stick together.” Some such pairs of words (also called “Janus words,” after the Roman god with two faces) are actually the same word with contradictory senses developed over time (e.g., “fast,” moving quickly, and “fast,” securely attached). The two senses of “cleave,” however, are two entirely separate words, with different origins, that just happen to share the same spelling.

“Cleave” meaning “to split, divide, separate” first appeared in Old English in the form “cleofan,” derived from Germanic roots with the general sense of “to split or cut.” The original meaning of this “cleave” in English was “to part along the grain,” as in splitting wood for a fire, but today we use it to mean simply “to cut in two, divide.”

The other “cleave,” meaning “to adhere to, stick to,” also harks back to a Germanic root, in this case the same one that eventually gave us the word “glue.” Along with its literal sense of “stick to” (“Huge masses of masonry, which seem to cleave to the bare rock,” 1867), this “cleave” has long been used in the warm and fuzzy sense of “to remain attached, devoted, or faithful to” (as in the Biblical injunction “Cleave unto that which is good”).

If this all seems like a recipe for confusion between the two words, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The fact that English has two “cleaves” from different sources and with entirely different meanings would, if language were logical, dictate that they each have their own distinct forms to indicate tense, etc. No such luck. As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) explains, because the words were identical, “…their inflectional forms were naturally also confused, and to some extent blended or used indiscriminately.” Thus the antiquated past tense form “clave” belongs etymologically to “cleave” (adhere), but it has also been used off and on as the past tense of “cleave” (split). The more common form “cleaved” also serves as the past tense of both verbs.

The OED has a fascinating rundown of the dizzying array of past tense and past participle forms of both words over the centuries, but I sense it’s time to cut to the finish line and give you the long story short. So the existing past tense forms of “cleave” in the “split” sense are “clove,” “clave,” “cleaved” and “cleft,” and the past participle forms are “cloven,” “cloved,” “cleaved” and “cleft.” In the “adhere” sense we have “cleaved” and “clave” again for the past tense and “cleaved” for the past participle. Practically speaking, “cleaved” is probably the most popular past tense form for both words, though “cleft” for “split” is more poetic, and the participial “cloven” (“having been split”) is one of my favorite words. “Clooved,” incidentally, is a very creative, but historically non-existent, word.

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