Q: A recent article in the Charlotte Observer about regional food describes New England clam chowder as “clammy (in the good way).” Does “clammy (in the bad way)” also come from the noun “clam”?
A: No, the adjective “clammy,” meaning moist, sticky, and cold, is not derived from “clam,” the noun for a bivalve mollusk with a soft, edible body.
Early versions of both the adjective and the noun showed up in Old English, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, but the two words are not related.
Ayto says “clam” originally meant “something for tying up or fastening,” and it can be traced back to the prehistoric Germanic root klam-, which also gave English the word “clamp.”
By the late 1300s, according to Ayto, both “clam” and “clamp” referred to a rigid, vise-like device used to grip or brace objects.
It wasn’t until the 1500s, he writes, that “clam” came to mean “the mollusc which now bears the name, apparently on the grounds that its two shells close like the jaws of a clamp or vice.” (Ayto uses the British spelling, “vice.”)
As for the adjective “clammy,” it etymologically means “sticky as if smeared by clay,” according to Ayto.
He says the adjective comes from a now obsolete verb, clam, that meant to smear or stick, but the ultimate source is klaimaz, a prehistoric Germanic root that also gave English the word “clay.”
Ayto adds that klai- (the base of klaimaz) “can be traced back to the Indo-European base gloi-, glei-, gli-, from which English gets glue and gluten.”
By the way, we couldn’t find the clam-like sense of “clammy” in the Oxford English Dictionary or any of the standard dictionaries we usually check.
However, you don’t have to dig too far to find the usage on the Internet, and we imagine that lexicographers will take notice if enough people use “clammy” in the good way.