I have always been a prolific reader, engrossed in anything from a geometry text book, fantasy novel, or whatever I could get my hands on. After absorbing so many words, I think it only natural that I eventually wondered where our words began, how they must have evolved, and when they could have changed. My yearning to explore this new fascination and my need to spend as little money possible on this endeavor culminated in the discovery of my long-time favorite podcast: The History of English Podcast (THEP), written, produced, and hosted by Kevin Stroud.
Stroud, a practicing attorney, began THEP in 2012 by discussing Indo-European, a language that would branch off and evolve into many European languages, including modern English, spoken before any alphabets were created to express its unique set of sounds and grammar. This was the perfect recreational listening for me; not only was I surrounded by words, but learning the complex history behind those words gave me a feeling of appreciation for the English language I had not previously known. The podcast successfully guided me away from my work day, filling me with knowledge about a topic so far removed from Jane Addams and 20th century Progressive politics that I could only be amused when Episode 12 pulled me right back to her papers.
Just a week prior to listening to Episode 12, I had come across Pleads for Suffrage, April 17, 1906, an article written by Addams in support of women’s suffrage. Near the end of this article, she states:
“So many of the stumbling blocks against which we fall are the opportunities to which we have not adjusted ourselves. We keep hold of a convention which no longer squares with our genuine insight into life and we are slow to follow a [clue] which might enable us to solace and improve the life about us because it shocks an obsolete ideal.”
In this paragraph, we the editors have bracketed the word “clue” to express an effort to regularize unusual spelling for the sake of readability and searchability in our digital edition; the word was originally spelled “clew.” At the time I read this article, I bracketed the unorthodox spelling without a second thought. Addams incorporated several unconventional spellings in her correspondence and other writings, such as “inclosed” instead of “enclosed”, or “altho” instead of “although”, and I believed this instance to be another drop in this bucket of the quirky, irregular 20th century spellings she employed.
Episode 12: Early Greek, Hittite and the Trojan War of THEP, originally released in August of 2013, set out to discuss the Minoan civilization living on the island of Crete, just south of modern day Greece, and their mythical king, Minos, for whom the society was named after. According to legend, Minos was in possession of a powerful half man, half bull creature called a Minotaur which he kept in a purposefully complicated cave, or labyrinth, as a prison. Eventually, a Greek prince, Theseus, offered to kill the beast. In order to avoid becoming lost in the maze of the labyrinth, he used a ball of thread, given to him by King Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, and tied one end to the cave’s door. After defeating the Minotaur in the center of the maze, Theseus used the thread to find his way back to its entrance, left Crete without Ariadne, and sailed back to his home in Athens. This thread used by Theseus to escape the labyrinth, or any ball of thread or yarn, was historically called a “clew.”
According to Stroud, this story became wildly popular in the Middle Ages, during the time Old English was spoken. Authors used the idea of a “clew” being employed to solve a maze or a puzzle so often, eventually the word could mean either a ball of thread or yarn, or a figurative hint or guide depending on the context. In modern English, beginning around the late 16th century, two separate spellings emerged for the seemingly unrelated definitions, with writers eventually substituting the Middle English ending of “ew” with the French associated ending of “ue” for the latter meaning. Today, the word “clue” has lost its figurative status, and fully refers to an actual hint to a solution of a problem.
Looking back at Addams’s usage of the word “clew” with this newfound knowledge, we can make some guesses as to her choice of spelling. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the spelling “clew” was being used to refer to a figurative hint or guide as late as 1855. There is a real possibility that Addams, born only five years later in 1860, may have picked up the word’s earlier usage and incorporated it into her lexicon. In either case, the meaning of the word leans heavily toward a hint or guide, no matter how figurative it may be, leading editors to choose “clue” over “clew.”
The battle editors face between fidelity and accuracy when transcribing a text is often fought on a delicate rope. We can only hope that the choices we make help bring Addams’s ideas to a larger audience, and give some kind of [clue] into the world of Progressive era activism.
By Victoria Sciancalepore
Sources: About the Host, The History of English Podcast; Episode 12: Early Greek, Hittite and the Trojan War, The History of English Podcast; Jane Addams to Miss Leppo, December 28, 1907, Jane Addams Papers Project; Jane Addams to Mary Rozet Smith, May 19, 1902, Jane Addams Papers Project; Pleads for Suffrage, April 17, 1906, Jane Addams Papers Project