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, either before (known as a proclitic) or after (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?” 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).

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 of “it was.” Other 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. Examples are: 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, “Speaking of clitics, have I ever told you about the etymology of clitoris?”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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Read related posts: Adventures in Rhetoric: Adianoeta
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2 responses to “Adventures in Linguistics: Clitic

  • ashleyomelia

    Always nice to learn something new! Even having gone to school for English, I’m pretty sure nobody ever taught me about this! 🙂

    • Alexander Atkins

      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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