The noun clerk has an unorthodox pronunciation, and a complex history of meaning. The traditional British pronunciation is with the same vowel sound as that in 'car', 'park' and 'dark', IPA: /klɑːrk/. This is shown in the spelling of the American forename 'Clark': Americans pronounce clerk to rhyme with 'work', or 'jerk', IPA: /klɜːrk/. (A similar feature of pronunciation, with the spelling '-er-' representing the sound 'AHr' can be seen in the proper nouns Derby, Berkeley and Hervey and the military rank of 'sergeant'.) The related word clergy, together with its derivatives, is always pronounced like 'work' /klɜːrdʒɪ/, on both sides of the Atlantic.
- The word originally meant a 'man in a religious order', such as a priest, a deacon, cantor etc. The church is less important to most Britons these days, and it is enough - as well as less ambiguous - to refer to such as clergymen (and now sometimes clergywomen), or clerics. Only in rather formal language, as used in church law for example, will you still hear the phrase clerk in holy orders as the formal title of an ordained clergyman. The old term now has a new use.
- Men in the church made up, throughout the Middle Ages, the vast majority of the literate in the population, and therefore did most of the writing and record-keeping, of government and in private life. From about the sixteenth century, with the Reformation and with the increase in literacy, clerk came to mean increasingly a scribe, or secretary, or keeper of accounts. The principle meaning now is "One employed in a subordinate position in a public or private office, shop, warehouse, etc., to make written entries, keep accounts, make fair copies of documents, do the mechanical work of correspondence and similar 'clerkly' work." (OED, 6 b,) With near universal literacy and the growth in ways of recording information and copying documents, the clerk appears to be an increasingly obsolete occupation.
- There is a related adjective clerical which is applied to describe things to do with both meanings of clerk. Most modern academics will use it more often in contexts of the subordinate in an office, rather than those to do with the ordained minister. But that is its original meaning, and it is still used by those around the organization of the Christian church.
- Clerical dress, for example, is the clothing expected of ministers, priests and other ordained clergymen; it is supplied by clerical outfitters.
- In American English, one meaning of clerk exists which is hardly known in Britain: "salesclerk: a salesperson in a store [~ shop]", according to wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn (accesssed 23/05/09). In Britain, such a person is a shop assistant, or 'retail worker'.