The Grammarphobia Blog

Clef notes

Q: Why is “roman à clef” pronounced ro-MAN-a-CLAY while the “f” is sounded at the end of neuf, the French word for nine?

A: The letter “f” is usually pronounced at the end of French words (oeuf, for example), but clef (key) is an exception.

In French, a key can be either a clef or a clé. Both terms are pronounced clay and both can refer to either musical notation or door opening.

Our blog is about English, not French, and a more intriguing question for us is why English speakers pronounce the “f” in “bass clef” (the musical term), but not the one in “roman à clef” (a novel in which real people or events are disguised).

English borrowed both the musical and the literary terms from French, but many years apart. The musical “clef” showed up in the 1500s, while “roman à clef” didn’t appear in print until the 1800s.

The ultimate source of “clef,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is clavem, Latin for key.

The earliest published English example of “clef” (spelled “cliffe”) in the OED is from The Schoole of Abuse (1579), Stephen Gosson’s puritanical attack against the theater: “How many keyes, how many cliffes, howe many moodes.”

(The dictionary notes that Gosson used the term here in the musical sense: a character that indicates the pitch on a line of musical staff.)

The earliest spellings of “clef” in English (“cliefe,” “cliffe,” “cleiffe,” etc.) suggest that the “f” was pronounced at that time.

We’ve read that the “f” in “clef” was pronounced in Old French, where speakers sounded many final consonants that aren’t heard in Modern French. We wonder if the “f” may have been sounded in Middle French (or Anglo-Norman) when English borrowed the word.

The OED suggests that the expression roman à clef (literally, a novel with a key) may be of relatively recent vintage in French as well as in English.

It dates the appearance of roman à clef in French at “1863 or earlier,” but then cites a 1690 French phrase, la clef d’un roman, which refers to the key character or passage that explains a novel.

The OED’s first English citation for “roman à clef” is from an 1882 book about Dickens by Sir Adolphus William Ward: “That art of mystification which the authors of both English and French romans a clef have since practised with so much transient success.”

And here’s a more recent citation, from a May 5, 2003, issue of New York Magazine: “The young dirt-disher reads from her thinly veiled roman-à-clef, The Devil Wears Prada.”

Why don’t English speakers pronounce the “f” in “roman à clef”? Probably because the French didn’t pronounce it when the expression entered English in the 19th century.

Note: Our Paris correspondent points out that a theory published in 1935 suggests clé arose as a back formation from the plural clés, which itself arose because the f + s combination in clefs looked odd. He’s skeptical, though, because both plurals, clefs and clés, are popular today.

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