The Scottish Referendum: words for thought (1)

"Morning Toilet" - Painting of woman by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg

As you’re probably aware (you certainly will be if you live in Scotland or one of the other UK countries!), on 18 September people on both sides of the Scottish independence debate – “Yes” voters, who want independence, and “No” voters, who want to stay with the United Kingdom – will be casting their votes.

And in spite of their opposing stances on Scottish independence, both sides will have one thing in common: they’ll each be voting to “cleave”. The “No” voters will express their desire to cleave to the United Kingdom, and the “Yes” voters their desire to cleave from it. Because “cleave” is one of those odd words in English that contains two contradictory meanings.

Both words started out from different roots, but their spelling has converged over time.

Cleave no. 1: to split, divide or separate

From the Old English cleofan, cleven, cliven, from Proto-Germanic *kleuban. Past tense: clove or cleft or cleaved; past participle: cloven or cleft or cleaved.

This version of “cleave” gives us terms like cloven hoof, cleaver and cleavage (about which, see below).

“Cleave”, version 1, is normally used to denote a clean and irrevocable split (imagine a butcher’s cleaver chopping through bones).

Cleave no. 2: to adhere, stick, cling

From Old English clifian, cleofian, from West Germanic *klibajan. Past tense and past participle: cleaved.

“Cleave”, version 2, is frequently used to describe a very strong and emotional attachment to a person or belief: such as allegiance to a nation or family of nations.

Returning briefly to cleave no. 1, for most people nowadays the related word “cleavage” is associated with low-cut necklines. Or possibly builders’ bums (shudder). The women in the painting above, Morning Toilet by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (Source: Wikimedia Commons), offers both varieties.

However, “cleavage” was originally a geological term referring to the “action of splitting (rocks or gems) along natural fissures”. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the bosomy meaning wasn’t in use until the 1940s:

The sense of “cleft between a woman’s breasts in low-cut clothing” is first recorded 1946, defined in a “Time” magazine article [Aug. 5] as the “Johnston Office trade term for the shadowed depression dividing an actress’ bosom into two distinct sections;” traditionally first used in this sense by U.S. publicist Joseph I. Breen (1888-1965), head of the Production Code Administration (replaced 1945 by Eric Johnston), enforcers of Hollywood self-censorship, in reference to Jane Russell’s costumes and poses in “The Outlaw.”

So now we know.

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Glasgow’s times past

By Marian Dougan






Published by Marian Dougan

Marian is a translator and editor (specialising in web content) currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Marian previously lived in Italy for over 20 years, working as a language teacher, translator and policy analyst with the British Embassy in Rome. A qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and its Italian-language and ITI Scotnet networks, she is currently Scotnet's Convenor and Deputy Webmaster. From 2003 to 2006 Marian taught translation skills at the Italian Department of Glasgow University and now gives Master Classes as part of the new Masters in Translation Studies course. She also conducts web-writing and usability workshops to help people improve their websites and communicate more effectively with their readers, users and customers. In September 2014 Marian obtained User Experience Certification, with specialisation in Web Design, from the Nielsen Norman Group. She loves language, especially English, and is convinced that learning languages opens up people’s minds and horizons (and increases their brainpower!). To share her enthusiasm, she advises schools and educational authorities on language skills and enterprise. She gives talks to pupils on how to combine language studies with other subjects and so enhance their potential and increase their career options. Marian is an active member of organisations such as: Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI); Association of Scottish Businesswomen; Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Scotland. She also loves architecture, design, fashion (British Vogue!), cities and chocolate. She’s a great fan of Twitter and you can also find her on Linkedin.

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  1. How interesting Marian – I’d never thought about the two meanings of the word, but now you’ve mentioned it, I suppose that explains why Cleavers, that annoying weed with sticky buds that stick to everything (and especially my Springer’s fluffy feathers!), is so-called – because it sticks! You live and learn… And for what it’s worth, I sincerely hope that Scotland cleaves to the UK, not from it…

  2. Thanks, Claire. I’d never heard the name Cleavers, although I can visualise them (have just looked them up on Wikipedia – fascinating!)
    As for the Referendum – I’d be so upset if we left the UK!

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