The use of “clout” as an informal term for “power or influence, especially political influence,” is an Americanism of fairly recent vintage — circa the 1950s, according to “American Slang.” Originally, “clout” was “a piece of cloth or leather for patching” or “any piece of cloth, especially one for cleaning” — in other words, a “rag.”
It’s been a rough year for the University of Illinois, an institution of higher learning dealing with the fallout from lower standards.
The issue is the corruption of the school’s admissions procedures through the use of clout. As is often the case, the first step may prove to have been the hardest: admitting there was something amiss in admissions.
The use of “clout” as an informal term for “power or influence, especially political influence,” is an Americanism of fairly recent vintage — circa the 1950s, according to “American Slang.”
Originally, “clout” was “a piece of cloth or leather for patching” or “any piece of cloth, especially one for cleaning” — in other words, a “rag.”
The university could use some of each kind, for mending and for cleaning.
Later, “clout” came to mean “a blow, with or as with the hand.” Once again, it suits the situation:
The school’s reputation has certainly suffered a clout or two.
The tracing of bits of language back to their beginnings is called “etymology,” from two Greek words: “etymon,” “the literal sense of a word,” from “etymos,” “true”; and “logos,” or “word.”
It’s occasionally confused with “entomology,” the study of insects. Clearly, they are different animals, although we do use electronic bugs to listen in on words.
In tracking down origins of English words, a successful etymological journey eventually leads to an “Indo-European base.”
The Indo-European family of languages includes most of those spoken in Europe and many of the ones prevalent in southwestern Asia and India. In etymology, it’s a “hypothetical language, constructed by modern linguists, from which these languages are thought to have descended.”
For such a base, Webster’s puts an asterisk at the start and a hyphen at the end, and the whole thing is in italics. The asterisk emphasizes that the spelling is at best an approximation, because there’s no written record of such a language.
In the case of “clout,” the base is given as “gel-” (I’ll forgo the asterisk and italics). Its various meanings are “to form a ball,” “to make round,” “to clench (as a fist)” and “to swell,” with a basic sense of “to cling to, grip.”
Its English relatives form an impressive clan. Among those with a basic gripping nature are “clam,” “clamber,” “clamp,” “clasp,” “claw,” “cleat,” “clench” (and “clinch”), “climb,” “cling,” “clip” and “clutch.”
Among those in the ball-forming group are “clod,” “clog,” “clot,” “cloud,” “club,” “clump,” “cluster” and “clutter.”
One whose connection is less clear is “clumsy.”
And then there’s “clue,” which also seems appropriately mysterious, until you learn that it’s a variant of “clew.” A “clew” is “a ball of thread or yarn.”
In Greek legend, it was “a thread used by Theseus as a guide out of the labyrinth.” That’s some yarn all right.
And those are just the members of this family in the “cl-” section of the dictionary. I don’t dare venture beyond without a clew.
Even so, we can see that in its influence on our language, “gel-” has had considerable clout.
Contact Rockford Register Star writer Barry Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org or read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/woodonwords/.