Monday, 3 October 2011

sawflies and the origin of the word 'clue'

Walking in Darebin Parklands today, my companions and I noticed a crowd of sawfly larvae crawling across the path. I took a photo, but didn't try to get a good one, because it didn't occur to me that I would want to post it here on my word blog...



The larvae were clumped together, but not in a ball, as they are often seen. I presume they were more spread out because they were headed across the path. There's a better photo here, at the South Australian Government Forestry site, showing them in a ball on a tree.

Later in the day, I happened to say I didn't have a clue about something, and I wondered where the word clue comes from. I seem to recall reading it spelled clew in an old Sherlock Holmes novel.

The Phrase Finder
explains that, although the word clue today means 'an insight or an idea that points us to a solution',
a clue (also spelled clew) previously had a different meaning - a globular ball formed from coiling worms or the like [my emphasis] or, more specifically, a ball of thread. Clew has been used with that meaning for at least a thousand years and citations of it in Old English date back to 897AD, when no less an author than Aelfred, King of Wessex used it in his West-Saxon translation of Gregory's Pastoral Care. Shakespeare also used the word with the 'thread' meaning, for example, in All's Well that Ends Well, 1602:

"If it be so, you have wound a goodly clewe."
Phrase Finder goes on to explain that the modern meaning came from the ancient Greek tale in which Theseus used a ball of thread to find the way out of the Minotaur's labyrinth.

At Lowchens Australia there's a list of collective nouns for animals, and for worms it has 'a clew of worms'. (I wonder why a dog-related site has this list.)

SheilaMatilda
posted a photo of a clew of earthworms seen in her compost bin. Now I'll know the correct term when I come across one in my compost heap.

3 comments:

SheilaMatilda said...

Thanks for visiting my blog, glad you found it useful. Will look through yours when i get a bit of time.

Mary said...

Parlance, when I was teaching in Brunswick, Melbourne, we had these caterpillars on the trees in the yard. They used to be all clumped up like that and then fall to the ground and dig into the soil, not an easy thing to do in the rock hard ground we had in the playground, in drought conditions. Some time later we, occasionally, found sawflies coming up out of the ground. All very exciting. The children didn't like the caterpillars very much as they irritate the skin if you touch them.

parlance said...

Mary, I guess the ones I saw were trying to get into the soil, but unfortunately they were on a concrete path, being trodden underfoot.