Adventures in Linguistics: Clitic

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Every day in your writing and speech you use clitics. “Hold on there,” you respond indignantly, “that’s a word that sounds really lewd. I’m not sure what clitics are, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never used them.” I hate to sound accusatory, but you just used four of them. You see, a clitic is a morpheme that functions like a word but is not spelled or pronounced completely. The morpheme is always phonetically attached to a word, known as its host. If the morpheme is attached before its host, it is known as a proclitic; if it is attached after its host, it is known as a enclitic. The word clitic is derived from the Ancient Greek word klitikos meaning “inflectional” from enklitikos meaning “lean on.” For the purient-minded or linguistically curious, you might be asking: “Hmmn, is klitikos also the origin of the word clitoris?” That’s a very good question. The word clitoris is actually derived from another similar-sounding Ancient Greek word kleitoris, from klieo (“shut, to encase”) or from kleis (“a latch or hook” used to close a door). Those Ancient Greeks were so clever.

One of the most famous proclitics appears at the beginning of Clement C. Moore’s poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” published in 1823. The first line of the poem is considered the best known verse ever composed by an American poet: “‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house.” ‘Twas, of course, is a contraction —albeit archaic and rare — of “it was.” More common examples of proclitics are: c’mon (come on); d’you (do you); ’tis (it is); and y’all (you all). Enclitics are far more common because they occur in contractions that are used quite frequently; examples include: can’t (cannot); haven’t (have not); he’ll (he will);  I’m (I am); I’ve (I have); they’re (they are); and we’ve (we have).

So there you have it — this fascinating, arcane linguistic gremlin that is lurking in everyday speech and writing. Unlike you — now that you have been enlightened — people who use them are blissfully oblivious to its name, nuances, and etymology. So the next time you encounter a person using clitics, casually ask him or her “Are you aware you use a lot of clitics?” You will be pleasantly amused by the bewildered expression on their face. And if you are feeling devilish, you can add with a smirk, “Speaking of clitics, have I ever told you about the etymology of clitoris?”

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5 thoughts on “Adventures in Linguistics: Clitic

  1. I like how you have a sense of humor about the teases and indignities of jargon. However, I’ve noticed that as soon as I learn an inside joke, the word is changed or vanished into archaicdom like a bad penny. Veterinarians used to be quite proud of their shocker to customers: “So, how’s your bitch?”. Now they say “Dam”. Very odd. I thought “clitic” was a clinic for actors founded by Clint Eastwood. But he’s from old Norse “Klint” — rocky cliff notes. Apparently, a lot of etymology has ‘lint. Nowadays I wonder what Google Translate is doing to cross-cultural amateurs — I found this: “I am washing” –>زه مئین یم –> “I’m in love.” English –> Pashto –>[back to English via Google]. That is, if you translate the first and take that result and translate back to English you find doubt about whether it’s an idiom or a machine mistake. I need to coin a coin for the slot machine etymo’ they have at Las Vagueness Nevada.

    • Hi: Thanks for your note and for visiting and following Atkins Bookshelf, written for book lovers just like you. My blog and recently published book was inspired by the serendipitous discoveries made in my private library of over 8,000 books. It has been a fascinating lifelong adventure. In this digital age book lovers and collectors must keep the faith and passion alive. Cheers. Alex

    • Hi Ashley: Thanks for your note and ongoing support of Bookshelf. I have always been fascinated by the English language, and owning more than 1,000 dictionaries and word books, take one off the shelf and browse through them. I found serendipitously landed on this new word and thought the same thing: why didn’t I learn about this? And the truly amazing discovery is that it is lurking in the first word of the most famous American poem of all time! Cheers. Alex

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