Etymology Pronunciation

Why does “clerk” rhyme with “jerk” in the US?

Q: In Origins of the Specious, you discuss many words that Americans pronounce in a more traditional way than the British. You don’t mention “clerk,” but I wonder if it could have been included.

A: There’s some truth to what you say, but the phonological history of “clerk” is a bit more complicated than the histories of those words mentioned in Origins of the Specious.

As we write in our book about language myths and misconceptions, the American Colonists took the English pronunciations of the day with them when they came to the New World.

The Colonists preserved many of those pronunciations after the Revolution, but in the late 18th and early19th centuries educated Britons began “r”-dropping, “a”-stretching, adding or subtracting an “h,” and lopping off next-to-last syllables.

For anyone who hasn’t read Origins of the Specious, the New York Times website includes a large excerpt from Stiff Upper Lips, the chapter about differences between American and British English.

Now, let’s get back to your question.

During much of the Middle English period (1100 to 1500), “clerk” sounded something like cleirk, a pronunciation still heard in parts of Scotland and Ireland, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

An extensive pronunciation note in American Heritage explains that in Middle English the “e” of “clerk” was pronounced like the one in “pet,” and the “r” was sounded.

By the late 16th century, when people began leaving England for the Colonies, “clerk” had two principal pronunciations: klerk  (in areas where the future Colonists generally lived) and klark (in the south of England). The “r” was sounded in both pronunciations.

The “clerk” that accompanied English immigrants to the Colonies and the early United States rhymed with “jerk,” according to the AH note, while the one in southern England rhymed roughly with “spark” (though the “a” may have sounded like the one in “cat”).

In the 18th century, AH says, people began “r”-dropping in southern England and “clerk” came to be pronounced klak. This pronunciation spread to educated speakers elsewhere and you’re likely to hear it today on the BBC. (With a broad “a” and the “r” muted, it sounds almost like “clock.”)

Before filing “clerk” in our archive, we should mention that the noun didn’t refer to a clerk in an office or a retail store when it entered English around 1050.

The Oxford English Dictionary says it originally meant an ordained Christian clergyman. In fact, both “clerk” and “cleric” are derived from clericus, Late Latin for a clergyman.

But not long after “clerk” entered English, the OED adds, it took on a secular sense:

“In early times, when writing was not an ordinary accomplishment of the laity, the offices of writer, scribe, secretary, keeper of accounts, and the transaction of all business involving writing, were discharged by clerks.”

Here’s a 1377 example from Piers Plowman, the 14th-century allegorical poem by William Langland: “Hadde iche a clerke that couthe write.” (The “th” in “that” was actually a runic letter called a thorn.)

The use of “clerk” for an office worker first showed in print, according to OED citations, in a 1512 act of Parliament early in the rein of Henry VIII: The said Collectours and Comptrollers and theire Clerkes.”

The use of the term for a shop assistant (the OED describes this usage as North American) first appeared in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, which was published in various versions after his death in 1790:

“He propos’d to take me over as his Clerk, to keep his Books (in which he would instruct me), copy his Letters, and attend the Store.”

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