‘Clue’ or ‘Clew’?

Our writer was surprised when he came across "clew" instead of "clue" in a detective novel from 1929.

Erik Deckers, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #776
The Quick And Dirty

A clew was originally a ball of twine, and the idea of following a string through a maze led to the more metaphorical idea of a "clew" being something that helps you find your way or find an answer. It started being spelled "clue" in the 1600s. In modern times, the "clew" spelling has been declining since around 1900s.

I've been doing a lot of reading lately, as you can imagine, and decided I would start reading one of my favorite detective series from the very start: the incomparable Ellery Queen. 

Ellery Queen was the author as well as the main character of more than 30 mystery novels. Set in New York City in the late 1920s and 1930s, Ellery helps his police inspector father, Richard Queen, solve difficult and complex murders. I've been reading Ellery Queen since my own father introduced me when I was 10 years old, although I haven't read them all, and I've certainly never read them all in order. So I started with the first novel, “The Roman Hat Mystery,” which was published in 1929.

Ellery Queen was actually a pseudonym created by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, two cousins who created the amateur detective. And being writers in the 1920s and '30s, they used a lot of terms and spellings that we might not be familiar with today.

For example, nearly everyone smokes in a Queen novel, and in the first several novels, the term "cigarette," is spelled C-I-G-A-R-E-T, not C-I-G-A-R-E-T-T-E.

Ellery's father, Richard, preferred his tobacco in the form a snuff, made from finely ground and dried tobacco leaves which are inhaled through the nose.

While fewer people smoke or use snuff these days, it's interesting to see how they enjoyed their vices 90 and more years ago.

But let me give you a clue as to what really caught my eye in these stories: The spelling of the word “clue."

Normally, when we talk about those small hints that help guide a detective toward solving a case, we spell it C-L-U-E.

But for the first several novels, with one or two exceptions, the authors Dannay and Lee spell the word C-L-E-W.

In the first several Ellery Queen novels, the authors used 'clew' instead of 'clue.'

I had never seen this particular spelling of the word, having only been familiar with C-L-U-E in the past. And now every time I see it, I pronounce it in my head like another famous detective, Inspector Clouseau, played by Peter Sellers: CLEW.

Inspired by my favorite amateur detective, I began to do a little investigating of my own to see if I could find any — oh, what do you call it? — indications or hints about this linguistic mystery.

Where did we get the "clew" spelling?

According to Merriam-Webster.com, the C-L-E-W spelling has been around since before the 12th century, and originally meant a "ball of thread." That word came to us from the Old English word “cliewen,” before becoming C-L-E-W-E in Middle English. And GrammarPhobia.com says, the word “cliewen,” was used as early as the year 897. This all came from the Germanic word “kluwen,” which also meant "ball of thread."

'Clew' originally meant 'a ball of thread.'

C-L-E-W-E was even used by the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century in his poem, “The Legend of Ariadne,” which was part of his longer work, “The Legend of Good Women."

According to Greek legend, the Minotaur was a half-man/half-bull creature locked away inside a complex maze called the Labyrinth on the island of Crete, which was ruled by King Minos. Minos would feed the minotaur by sending young men and women into the Labyrinth, where they would never be heard from again.

One day, the hero Theseus traveled to Crete to stop these human sacrifices. Theseus boasted to King Minos that he was there to slay the Minotaur, but Minos believed that even if Theseus succeeded, he would not be able to find his way back out. 

But Minos' daughter, Princess Ariadne, had fallen in love with the hero. She gave Theseus a ball of thread and told him to unravel it as he made his way through the Labyrinth so he could find his way out once he had killed the monster.

Chaucer told it this way in Middle English:

And for the hous is krynkeled to and fro,
And hath so queynte weyes for to go ―
For it is shapen as the mase is wrought ―
Therto have I a remedye in my thought,

That, by a CLEWE of twyn, as he hath gon,
The same weye he may returne anon,
Folwynge alwey the thred as he hath come.

Or in Modern English:

And because that dwelling-place winds much in and out
and has such intricate paths ―
for it is shaped like a maze ―
and for this I have in mind a remedy,

that by means of a ball of twine
he may directly return the way he went
following the thread continually.

So, in Chaucer's day, a “clewe” was a ball of twine or yarn used for sewing. Even today, in Scotland and northern England, a clew refers to a ball of yarn.

How "clew" became a metaphor

But, says Merriam-Webster, Chaucer's poem soon gave rise to other stories that used the word “clew” as a metaphor for "anything that could guide a person through a difficult place."

GrammarPhobia.com says that the first use of "clew" in that sense was in a poem by Michael Drayton in 1605. In it, he said:

Loosing the CLEW which led us safely in,
Are lost within this Labyrinth of lust;

When did ‘clew' become ‘clue'?

Somewhere in the 1600s, the spelling of CLEW changed and became standardized to what we use today: C-L-U-E. (Check out our article from March 2017 on The History of English Spelling for more information.)

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the modern spelling was first seen in the mid-15th century. But in the 1620s, it began to take on the meaning of "that which points the way."

The word became even more informal around 1948, becoming something "which a bewildered person does not have." As in "Aardvark secretly ate all the chocolate and Squiggly doesn't have a clue as to who took it."

Over the centuries, the metaphorical sense of the word has become the preferred meaning to the literal sense, and the "-ue" spelling outperformed the "-ew" spelling. Even so, the word "clew" is occasionally used to refer to a ball or skein of yarn, especially in Scotland and northern England, and it's used in sailing circles to refer to the lower corner of a sail or the cords used to suspend a hammock.

People still use 'clew' in Scotland and northern England to refer to a ball or skein of yarn.

Nowadays, not only do detectives follow clues to unravel the mystery, but now you also have a clue as to the word’s origin. And I got to unravel a clew to get to the bottom of this little mystery.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Erik Deckers, Writing for Grammar Girl

Erik Deckers is a professional writer and the co-author of four social media books, including "Branding Yourself." He recently published his first humor novel, "Mackinac Island Nation," and celebrated his 25th anniversary as a newspaper humor columnist. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida.