Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Daily Hump: Clumsy

Surprisingly, I do not have the physical skill and grace of a ballerina or even a Gerald Ford. Lo, I am condemned to a life of uncoordination. But the unwieldiness of my being has no effect on my love of the hump, and thus today we hump, however clumsily, clumsy.

Clumsy is a fascinating little word that oft gets overlooked by your Word-of-the-Day vocabinistas. It's the adjective form of a now obsolete verb clumse, which in Middle English meant "to become stiff or numb with cold" or in transitive form "to stupify." Given the Scandinavian climate it's not surprising to discover this word is of Old Norse origin, descending from the verb klumsa, "to make motionless."

Here's where it gets cool (pun most-certainly intended): per the OED
The [Old Norse] stem klum- is in ablaut relation to klam- in [the English] clam...the radical notion being that of ‘confinement, constraint, constriction’, which, in this group, is [especially] referred to the stiffening action of cold.
For you non-linguists in the crowd "ablaut relation" has nothing to do with your fat Uncle Otto from Germany; rather, it simply refers to vowel changes common in words of Indo-European origin, the classic example being sing, sang, sung. Also, it's important to point out that to "clam up", meaning to not speak, is an American construction from 1916 and is not related to the idea of confinement as described above.

clumsy [OED]
clumse [OED]
clam [Online Etymology Dictionary]
ablaut [Wikipedia]

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:: posted by David, 8:11 AM


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