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Restoration of Sperlonga statue of Odysseus blinding Polyphemus- a clever plan. See impressive images of this sculpture photgraphed by Andre Durand here

“I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.” Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

 We have  wandered far across the wine dark seas with Odysseus throughout the past few weeks. Our text of The Odyssey says he is a man of ‘cunning ‘ and ‘skilled in all ways of contending’. A recent version by Gillian Cross and sumptuously illustrated by Neil Packer opens with: “This is the story of Odysseus, cleverest of all Kings of Ithaca.”  As we enter the cyclops’ cave along with Odysseus and his men, we see the stark contrast between wit and stupidity, between the wily Odysseus and the gormless man-chomping cyclops. We see too the cleverness of Penelope, Odysseus’s equal in cunning, weaving by day and unweaving by night to dupe her predatory suitors. Clever, a word not quite positive in connotation, a word like so many of the words around intelligence – on the precipice of becoming derogatory. Students are busy uncovering the stories of the clever words. 

The Morphology of Clever: Still dominated by syllable silliness, students hypothesised <cl+ev+er>, although when asked, what is the base and is there a prefix, recognized the lack of cleverness in this quick response and wondered more astutely if the word could be analyzed as <clev+er>  or <cleve+er>.

The students recognised the ubiquitous  <-er> suffix and as they called out words that confirmed this, I seized the moment to discuss the terms derivational and inflectional suffixes,  asking if they could ‘spot my pattern’ conducted by setting several columns on the board and placing the words in each column according to whether it was the agent suffix or the comparative suffix. They had to figure out the reasons for my placement.We soon realized the need for other columns with words like shiver, slither, twitter, stammer and another for words like river, cover, feather.

The <-er> suffix

Students saw that although the letters are identical in all groupings there is a clear difference in sense and use. We saw words like farmer, baker, teacher, learner, cleaver were nouns.

The derivational agent suffix <-er> : carries a sense of someone who or something that does something; a teacher teaches, a cleaver cleaves. The agent  suffix <-er>  is nominal and ‘ is capable of functioning as the subject and direct object in a sentence, and as the object of a preposition’. (OED) 

 The inflectional <-er> comparative suffix: bears only a superficial resemblance to derivational agent suffix <-er>. It’s function is different. It compares at least two groups of entities in quality, quantity, or degree. It forms one of the three degrees of comparison the others being the positive and superlative.

Both the agent and comparative suffixes with an initial vowel letter will cause a final single consonant letter in a base element preceded by a single vowel letter, to double. So  <hot+er> becomes hotter , a comparative adjective and <swim +er> becomes swimmer when adding the agent suffix.

Frequentative element: In gathering words where <er> was potentially a suffix, we listed – dodder, totter, splinter, hover, shiver, flutter, slither, blather, slobber, clatter, glimmer, stutter, stammer. We saw these words could be verbs as well as nouns.There is a frequentative sense to these words, there is movement back and forth, repetition. 

When we examine morphemes of a current word, we of course  are operating morphologically  and so firmly in the present. It’s the synchronic aspect we are dealing with when locating words that share an element – a base or an affix.  When tracking down the origins, locating the etymons, we are working in the etymological realm. This is considering words through time- the diachronic aspect. One of course informs the other, but these aspects should not be muddied and muddled together. 

So we look for words that share a base synchronically, where ( in present Day English) the <er> can be substituted by another suffix or removed. For the vast majority of these words in our ever growing list, we hesitated, unable to remove or substitute this frequentative element. All we  can say with certainty is that <er> in this group of words is an inseparable particle, not  a suffix. It has a sense of repeated actions and movements – it is a frequentative extension: flutter, clatter, dither, bother, clamber . These words are unitary bases.  

There are words, in the list we gathered, where there is another obvious related base element. It is more likely that the second of the pair is also a unitary base element, rather than evidence that the <er> is a suffix. : <patter> and <pat>, <splatter> and<splat>, <slobber> and <slob>. In the first of each pair,  <er> is a frequentative extension, an inseparable particle. Where <er> carries a frequentative sense, it is not a suffix. The <er> of patter is the frequentative extension of <pat>.

This, lest I linger  and maunder in an <er> bedazzled haze far from the intended path, will be the subject of another post.

After this gathering, sorting and examining of words and contemplating <er> as a suffix and frequentative extension, we conclude that the word clever is a unitary base. The <element<er> is not used in the comparative sense- to do this would require the addition of the suffix <-er>, or  the phrase more clever. Clever is not a noun, so the agent suffix <-er> is not an element in the word. Nor is there any frequentative sense hovering around clever. The <er> cannot be substituted with another suffix. So clever is as clever does! 


The Etymology of Clever: The origins of this word are uncertain. It’s a mystery word except to say that it is of Germanic origins.

 c1220   Bestiary 221 in Old Eng. Misc. 7   On ðe cloðede ðe neddre is cof, and te deuel cliuer on sinnes; Ai ðe sinfule bisetten he wile. [i.e. The adder is quick (to dart) on the clothed, and the devil expert to lay hold on sins.]

Clever, referring to the hijinks of a dextrous adder, is attested in a thirteenth century bestiary and perhaps evolved from the Old English etymon clifer meaning a claw, talon or a hand – and thereby quick to seize.  Its first denotations are around dexterity and being ‘handy’ with things, a notion which still remains in the general sense of adroit, dexterous, having ‘the brain in the hand’ (OED).

Then there is a gap when clever goes underground, an absence where it’s not seen in any text until it resurfaces in the 16th century and is associated with senses of agility and sprightliness. Clever seems to have been waiting in the wings, ‘adroitly’ stepping into the lexicon at a time when deliver, with a sense of ‘expert’, faded from use.  As the OED notes ‘there is no trace of any influence of the one upon the other’. The sense-development of clever has analogies with that of nimble, adroit, handy, handsome, nice, neat, clean. The sense in which we know it today as intelligent did not emerge until the 18th century, 1704.  All this means you find uses of it where it means attractive, well designed, intelligent and sometimes in US English ‘good- natured’( Online Etymology Dictionary).

Perhaps, etymologists argue, clever is derived from an East Anglian dialect word or maybe from Norwegian ‘klover’ or East Frisian  klüfer and perhaps even  Old Norse kleyfr with a sense of easy to split which makes it, perhaps, a relative of the word ‘cleave~ cleft’: split. Clever, a mystery word, is shrouded in ‘perhapses’ and ‘maybes’.

 Compounds like: clever-clogs pleasingly alliterative, clever boots, clever-sides and phrases like ‘too clever by half’ , ‘clever is as clever does’, hint at a darker side – an edginess to clever, not quite studious, and not so positive in connotations.  Clever, like many of the words connected with intelligence, is on a precipice. Cunning, crafty and sly  initially with positive connotations of skill have pejorated, plummeted down a negative slope, as too with many of the words associated with learning. Consider smart and the smarty words compounded with Alec and pants. Then there are boffins, eggheads, nerds, and geeks all words that mock, ridicule or distrust learning.

We  ranked words from the most positive to negative and speculated about the disdain for the intellect. Perhaps it’s merely a comment on the practical or pragmatic versus the academic  or as Burridge suggests ,’our overriding pursuit of ‘relevance’ and the ‘real world”. Yet there is more than this in the connotations of some of these words (crafty, sly, cunning) a sneering, a suspicion of ‘jiggery- pokery’, of being duped. Students suggested a jealousy of intelligence and a human need to ridicule it as seen in the stereotypical images hovering around ‘nerds’.

Clever: This is a low word, scarcely ever used but in burlesque or conversation; and applied to any thing a man likes, without a settled meaning. [Johnson, 1755]

Before clever came to mean intelligent there was keen (1000), nimble (OE ) quick at grasping, comprehending, or learning; (hence) clever, wise.’, witty (1100) ‘Having (good) intellectual ability; intelligent, clever, ingenious; skilful, expert, capable’, and the wonderful smeigh (1200) meaning clever or cunning, skillwise (1300) with a sense of intelligent,discerning and clever. 

Below our arrangement of words from brilliant and bright at the most positive to crafty, shrewd, cunning and sly at the most negative end of the spectrum. Lots of discussion around the nuances of these words. Students chose one of these words to investigate and we arranged ourselves this time from the oldest to most recent of words.

And who is smart Alec of this post’s title? Or smart Aleck?  What has he done to deserve the appellation? Is this like a clever Dick – an annoying  ‘know-all’?  Cohen ( Studies in Slang, 1985) first linked what had been deemed a generic term to Aleck Hoag of 1840’s New York – a pimp, con-man, expert of the ‘panel game.’ Aleck used his dubious skills in collusion with his wife, Melinda, to steal wallets from unsuspecting males besotted by Melinda’s charms. However, just as Alec is coming into focus, the 2013 OED revised entry pours cold water on poor old Alec: ‘ no contemporary evidence of the name being applied to him has been found, and it first appears rather later in a different part of the United States.’ So the Alec of smart Alec too a mystery, a conjecture.

Below a clever girl, who championed cleverness in girls, Dame Elizabeth Wordsworth, grand niece of the Poet William Wordsworth. Read more here

NPG x13332; Dame Elizabeth Wordsworth by Unknown photographer

If all the good people were clever,

And all clever people were good,

The world would be nicer than ever

We thought that it possibly could.

But somehow ’tis seldom or never

The two hit it off as they should,

The good are so harsh to the clever,

The clever, so rude to the good!

So friends, let it be our endeavour

To make each by each understood;

For few can be good, like the clever,

Or clever, so well as the good.

by Elizabeth Wordsworth