Cleave, Cleaver, and Clove

By Maeve Maddox

Sophia Bailey asks about the word cleave:

Can you please explain ‘cleave.’ On one hand it means to separate (cleaver – butcher) and on the other it means to cling to (cleave to bosom). Huh?

Old English had two verbs that have come to be spelled the same way in modern English:

clifian: to adhere, to stick

cleofan: to split, to separate

Note: In these OE words, the letter f stands for the “v” sound.

From clifian we get the cleave that means “adhere” or “stick” (in the glutinous sense).

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. (Genesis 2:24, King James version)

She cleaved to him, and he could feel his blood changing like quicksilver (D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love (1920)

Already married to a man who had ended up in prison, she cleaved to the outlaw… (blog about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, with a 1995-2005 copyright notice.)

…she cleaved to her Baptist views until her death. (a book review dated 1999)

From cleofan we get the cleave that means cut in two.

Order a side of beef–that’s half a cow, roughly 300 pounds–and get it cut and cleaved any way you like. (ad for a meat company)

A gyrocopter pilot drove towards a hunt supporter who was trying to stop him from taking off, cleaving his head ”from top to bottom”, ..(grim story in the Telegraph, 19 October 2010)

Cleofian was a strong verb in OE so we also have the past form clove:

[they] conducted him into a vast room, clove a passage for him through the assembled nobility of England, …

[The knight] cut through all his head armour and his skin and his flesh and clove him in twain.

he clove the rock, and the waters gushed out. ..

the king … seized hold of a huge sledge-hammer, and swinging it round his head, struck it with such force upon the anvil that he clove the massive block of iron in twain…,

From cleofian we also get the words cleft, cloven and cleavage.

Cleft can be used as a noun, as in a cleft in the rock, or as a an adjective meaning “split” or “bifurcated.”

A cleft palate is a malformation involving a split or gap in the palate. The expression, to find oneself in a cleft stick, means to be in a dilemma, to be unable to go forward or return to one’s initial position.

The hoof of a pig or a goat can be described either as a cleft hoof or a cloven hoof. The latter has diabolical connotations because the Devil is often depicted in art as having the feet of a goat.

The word cleavage is much used by geologists, biologists, and writers of celebrity gossip.

cleavage: The action of cleaving or splitting crystals and certain rocks along their lines of natural fissure; the state of being so cleft.

cleavage: Cell-division, segmentation.

cleavage: The cleft between a woman’s breasts as revealed by a low-cut décolletage. (colloquial)

A cleaver, of course, is a butcher’s cutting tool. It can be of any shape, but the shape most often associated with it is that of a small hatchet.

The noun clove, meaning the pointy bit that breaks off a bulb of garlic, is related to OE cleofian, “to split.”

The noun clove meaning the spice comes from a word meaning “nail,” Anglo-French clowes, French clou, Latin clavus. Cloves are the dried flowerbuds of an evergreen tree. They resemble nails.

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5 Responses to “Cleave, Cleaver, and Clove”

  • Dwain Wilder

    I’ve been putting together for some time a collection of “Words that Mean Their Opposite.” I’ve been trying to enroll people to help me find as many as possible.

    “Cleave” is a good one. “Sanction” is another top of the list. And “enjoin.”

    I’m grateful to have your explanation for “cleave.” Would you consider devoting a session of Daily Writing Tips to these self-antonyms?

  • Janice Brooks

    I explain it to my students by saying that one verb is “cleave” and the other is the phrasal verb “cleave to”; this seems to simplify the difference a bit.

  • Roberta B.

    ………….so what does “in twain” mean?

  • Dwain Wilder

    # Roberta B. on October 25, 2010 2:41 pm

    ………….so what does “in twain” mean?

    Now that you mention it, it would seem to be one of those redundant repetitive thingies.

  • Maeve Maddox

    He clove him in twain=He chopped him into two pieces.

    Twain is from OE twegen, “two.”

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