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shameless pleading

Hew and Cleave

Of course, Beaver Cleaver’s father was played by Hugh Beaumont, so there’s that.

Dear Word Detective: The words “hew” and “cleave” both have the same odd combination of meanings: “to cut,” or “to stick to.” Are they related? — Ken Lerner.

Um, yes and no. Next question. Oh, all right. No, they’re not really related in the sense of “having an etymological relationship” or “having some family connection that Cleave takes advantage of by borrowing Hew’s lawn trimmer.” The only attribute shared by “hew” and “cleave” is membership in the weird little club of English words known as “autoantonyms,” words with two opposite meanings (“auto” self, “anti” against, and “onyma,” Greek for “name”). Autoantonyms are also known as “contronyms,” “contranyms,” “antagonyms” and, in a refreshing break from all those “nyms,” sometimes as “Janus words.” Janus was the Roman god of doorways and beginnings (thus “January,” the first month in the Roman calendar), and was depicted as having two faces (as doors can be used from two sides).

“Contranyms,” which is the simplest name for the breed, actually come in two flavors. Some are simply one word which has, over time and in a linguistic process called “polysemy” (Greek for “many signs”), developed two opposite meanings. The other kind of contranyms are homographs, two separate words that happen to share the same spelling, and are also antonyms, words that have opposite meanings. The result in both types of contranyms is a word which seems to have two meanings, but in the case of homographs, that’s because it actually is two separate words. “Hew” and “cleve” are actually good examples of the two kinds of contranyms. (However, the fact that the two opposite meanings of “hew” are essentially synonymous with the two opposite meanings of “cleave” is deeply spooky and ought to give us all the creeps.)

“Hew” is the first kind of contranym, the “gradual change in meaning” kind. We inherited “hew” from Old English (where it was “heawan”), and its basic meaning was “to cut or strike with a cutting tool or weapon; to chop, hack, etc.” Trees and the like have often been “hewed” with axes (or “hewn,” if a poet is doing the job), but the verb has also often been used in descriptions of battles in a depressingly non-metaphorical sense (“The front lines, hewing at each other with their long swords,” Sir Walter Scott, 1828). But from day one, “hew” also had a more constructive meaning, that of “to shape, smooth, trim or form with an axe or a hammer and chisel, etc.” This sense is most often found today in the adjective “rough-hewn,” meaning something which has been shaped by chopping, etc., but lacks precise shaping and polish (“A long oaken table formed of planks rough-hewn from the forest … stood ready prepared for the evening meal,” Scott, Ivanhoe, 1819). But even such “hewing” required following a design for the finished product, and “to hew the line,” which first appeared in print in 1891, meant to cut closely along the line of a pattern. In a metaphorical sense, “hew the line” meant, and still does, “to stick to a plan and to obey instructions,” and “to hew” to something (e.g., your family, your principles) means to remain steadfast in your allegiance. So a verb which originally meant “to split apart” came to be its own antonym meaning “to conform, obey, adhere to.”

“Cleave” also means both “to split” and “to adhere,” but in this case the explanation is simpler, because the two opposite senses of “cleave” are actually two separate words and always have been. Both “cleaves” come from Old English and derive their base meanings from proto-Germanic roots. One “cleave” in Old English was “cleofan,” meaning “to split or separate,” especially by a blow from a sharp instrument. The past participle of this “cleve” is “cleft” (or “cloven”), meaning “split,” as in a “cleft palate” or the “cloven hooves” of a goat.

The other “cleave” was “clifian” in Old English, meaning “to stick, to adhere” (the same Germanic root gave us “clay”), and in literal use it’s essentially a synonym of “stick” (“Water in small quantity cleaveth to any thing that is solid,” Francis Bacon, 1626).  In modern English, this “cleave” is usually used in a figurative sense to mean “to remain faithful or devoted to” a person, cause, etc. (“We exhort you … to cleave for ever to those principles,” Edmund Burke, 1777). The two “cleaves” were originally clearly two separate words, but they had such a wide variety of forms that, beginning in the 14th century, they were commonly confused, which led to a common spelling, which only made things much murkier.

So in “cleave” and “hew” we have two (or three) words that are, in a sense, both double antonyms and double synonyms, and only by close attention to context can a reader or listener be certain of the meaning meant. That’s a prescription for bewilderment, and that potential for confusion is probably the reason that neither “hew” nor “cleave” is very popular outside of historical fiction today.

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