Hew and Cleave

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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