Cleave (meanings)

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Oddly enough, there are two verbs, both irregular, 'to cleave', with almost exactly opposite meanings. They have slightly different forms: OED says "their inflectional forms were naturally also confused, and to some extent blended or used indiscriminately." They are both derived from common Germanic. So confusion is easy, and common.

Etymological note: In Old English, this was both a strong verb clífan (*cláf, plural clifon, clifen). This was replaced by a weak verb cliofian, variant cleofian, derived from the weak stem kliƀ- of the strong verb . In Middle English this became clive, with variants clēve and cleeve, which are now written cleave. This is now largely used in religious contexts: in a traditional Christian marriage, a bride vows to "cleave only unto him." In the AV, the book of Genesis explains a new family by "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife" (ii 24), and the Psalmist laments the exile to Babylon as "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem ... let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy" Psalms 137 5-6. In the New Testament, St Paul advises the Christians in Rome "Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good." (Tyndale, in 1534, had "Cleave vnto that which is good".)
      • One noun is derived from this verb ('stick'): the common English name cleavers (formerly often spelled clivers) for 'goosegrass', Galium Aparine, a weed that sticks its seeds to clothes, dog fur etc to distribute them further.
  • The more recently developed (though recorded from 1100) verb cleave is a transitive verb which means 'to split, break asunder'. This is 'splitting', usually along the grain of the object, as opposed to cutting it, which may 'go against the grain'. For its forms, see cleave (split).
Etymological note: In Old English, this was the strong verb clíofan, cléofan, with the past tense cléaf and clufon in the plural and the past participle clofen. These developed into Middle English ''cleoven (also written clēven), clêf (plural cluven), and cloven. The past tense clêf became assimilated to the past participle cloven.
  • Confusion between the two verbs grew from this assimilation, of the past forms of cleave 'to split', and the shift of cleave, 'to stick', from original clíve to cleave. (OED 1889) says that this led to a state in which "the two verbs having thus become identical in the present stem were naturally confused in their other inflections" s.v. cleave, v.1).

The normal forms in modern English are

  • Nouns derived from the transitive verb 'to cleave', 'to split' include
      • cleaver, a tool used by butchers to chop through the bones of, or to separate, a carcase into joints. It is rectangular in shape, with a thick 'back' opposite the cutting edge.
      • cleavage, from the verb meaning 'split', refers to a splitting or separation. The rock slate, for example, has a cleavage plane; slong which it is easy to split a lump of raw rock into individual roofing slates. Cleavage planes are also present in crystals, and are the easiest way to shape gemstones. They are also useful in controlling semiconductors. The cleavage, or separation, of a woman's breasts may be a striking and attarctive feature.


For other words that have two apparently directly opposing meanings, see sanction and, more archaically, splice. See also Barm - berm and dike.