|Photo by Daniel KJ|
Noun. Late Middle English.
[Variant of CLEW noun Old English cliwen, cleowen = Middle Low German, Dutch kluwen,
from base also of Old High German kliuwa ball sphere, probably ultimately related to CLAW.]
1 A ball of yarn etc, used to trace a path through a maze (as in the Greek myth of Theseus in the Labyrinth);
a thing which guides through perplexity, a difficult investigation, an intricate structure. LME
2 NAUTICAL. The lower or after corner of a sail. L16
3 archaic. A ball of thread or yarn. E17
4(a) A fact or principle that serves as a guide, or suggests a line of inquiry,
in a problem or investigation, an intricate structure, etc. E17
4(b) A word, phrase, etc., indicating a word or words to be inserted in a crossword puzzle. E20
5 The thread of a story; a train of thought. M17
6 obsolete. A round bunch or cluster. L17-E18
7 NAUTICAL. The lower of after corner of a sail. L17
8 NAUTICAL. The series of cords by which a hammock is suspended. M18
clueless adj. without a clue; colloquial ignorant, stupid M19
cluelessness noun M20
Clue is one of those special words in English that comes packaged with both an interesting root and a fascinating story, for it takes us all the way back to Ancient Greece, to mythological Greece, to the time when the brave (but absent-minded) Theseus faced down and defeated the terrifying Minotaur. Theseus was already a bona fide hero before all of this, however, with a respectable body-count of monsters and villains to his name. On finally meeting his father King Aegeus of Athens (like every good hero, Theseus had daddy issues), he was horrified to learn that every ninth year seven Athenian boys and seven Athenian maidens were sent to Crete as a sacrifice to the terrible Minotaur, a tribute in blood for the time when Androgeos, the son of Minos, was killed by the Athenians. Oh, Minos was the ruler of Crete and the Minotaur's adoptive father, kind of; its father was actually a snow-white bull sent to Minos as a gift by Poseidon, but seemingly Minos's wife Pasiphae got a bit too friendly with it. And then she later fell in love with her own bull-son. Those Greeks! And you thought Jeremy Kyle was nuts ...
So, with his typical derring-do and have-a-go aplomb, Theseus volunteered to be one of the youths sent to sate the bloodthirsty Minotaur. He told his dad that he would sail out under a black sail and, on defeating the horrible bull-man beast, would return to Athens under a white sail to announce his victory. On arriving at the Labyrinth, Theseus was (badly) searched by the Cretan guards and (incompetently) stripped of all his weapons. However, Theseus's dashing charisma had clearly charmed Ariadne, daughter of King Minos (so step-sister of the Minotaur), for before he entered the Labyrinth she smuggled a clew to him, a ball of yarn so that he wouldn't become forever lost in its tortuous tunnels.
|I hope the men responsible for searching Theseus were severely reprimanded|
(drawing by H.A Guerber from 1896)
An so we have the story behind the word clue, which was originally clew, and has developed from the sense of being something that guides one through a difficult or perplexing situation, to what is commonly understood today, as a thing, fact or principle that serves as a guide or suggests a line of enquiry. And who do have to thank for this? Ariadne of course, who, although she had confidence in Theseus to do the heavy-lifting where the Minotaur was concerned, wasn't so certain about his ability to remember his way back (this does sound awfully familiar). And her reservations were well-founded, as having done all the hard stuff he still managed to bugger it all up on the return journey. I do suspect arguments over all of this were ultimately what lead to the demise of their relationship:
"I don't need you, Ariadne! I'm Theseus, Greek hero! Defeater of the Minotaur!"
"You? A hero? Ha! May I remind you, Theseus, that without me you literally wouldn't have had a clew!"
"Oh for ... would you ever shut up about that stupid ball of wool!? That 'wouldn't have had a clew' line stopped being funny about five years ago. And I would've remembered the way out ... eventually ..."
"Oh. Like you remembered about the white sail? The white sail I left ironed and folded on the deck for you? The one about which I specifically said: 'Now Theseus, darling, you won't forget to put this up will you? Because if you do forget, your drama queen of a dad'll only go and think you're dead and, without sensibly waiting for confirmation, will throw himself off the top of the flippin' Acropolis!?'"
[Sound of door slamming shut.]
"Theseus? Theseus, darling?"
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