The Grammarphobia Blog

The case of the missing clew

Q: Can “clue” and “clew” be used interchangeably? I was browsing in the Chicago Tribune archive and came across this headline: “CLEWS FADING IN MURDER OF CLERIC, WIFE.”

A: Not really. Although a few standard dictionaries include “clew” as a variant spelling of “clue,” the usage is unusual and we wouldn’t recommend it. Many readers would consider it a misspelling.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says this use of “clew” is chiefly British, but the British dictionaries we checked describe the spelling as rare or archaic.

“Clue,” as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, is “has now become the prevailing form” for this meaning of the word.

You can still find the “clew” spelling in old American newspapers, however, as you learned when you came across that Oct. 1, 1969, headline about the murder of the Rev. Bruce W. Johnson and his wife, Marjorie Eugenia.

Your question gives us a chance to discuss the fascinating history of “clew,” a very old word whose meaning as well as spelling evolved over the years.

The OED says “clew” originally meant a ball formed by rolling pieces together, as in a ball of yarn or twine. To this day, the word for a ball of yarn is spelled “clew” in Scotland and the north of England, the OED says.

The word was recorded in Old English (usually spelled cliwen or cleowen) as long ago as 897. In the Middle English period the “n” was dropped and the “ew” spelling was introduced.

Such “ew” spellings were once more common in English than they are today. Several English words now spelled “ue” were once spelled “ew,” including “blew” (for blue), “glew” (for glue), “rew” (for rue), “dew” (for due), “sew” (for sue), and “trew” (for true).

These spellings all became “ue” in modern English, and the same happened with “clew.”

The “clue” spelling first appeared in the 1400s, became frequent in the 1600s, and is now the dominant form of the word.

So how did the ball of yarn become the word we know from crime reports and mystery novels?

The sense of “clew” or “clue” as a key to a problem emerged in the early 1600s, originally as a figurative use of that earlier word.

As the OED explains, it meant “a ball of thread, employed to guide any one in ‘threading’ his way into or out of a labyrinth … or maze.”

This notion is at least as old as Greek mythology. Legend has it that Theseus unwound a ball of string as he made his way to the heart of the Labyrinth, then killed the dreaded Minotaur and followed the string to find his way out again.

As an extension of this idea, “clew” or “clue” subsequently came to mean “a fact, circumstance, or principle which, being taken hold of and followed up, leads through a maze, perplexity, difficulty, intricate investigation, etc.,” the OED says.

The OED’s first citation for this use of the word comes from a poem written by Michael Drayton in 1605: “Loosing the clew which led vs safely in, [We] Are lost within this Labyrinth of lust.”

Soon the literal sense of the word took a back seat to the figurative one, the OED says.

By the 17th century, a “clew” or “clue” meant “that which points the way, indicates a solution, or puts one on the track of a discovery; a key. Esp. a piece of evidence useful in the detection of a crime.”

The 19th-century writer Fergus Hume, for instance, used the word this way in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886): “Another hansom cabman … gave a clue which will, no doubt, prove of value to the detectives in their search after the murderer.”

Although the “clue” spelling is now the prevailing one for this sense, the old spelling can still be found in American newspapers from as recently as the 1970s. You might regard these sightings as clues to the word’s history.

Update: Readers of the blog note that the word “clew” has several other meanings today, including one of the two lower corners of a square sail and the lower aft corner of a fore-and-aft sail. And of course it’s still used now for a ball of yarn or thread.  

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