The unadulterated truth about the history of the word “clean”

Perhaps the story would not have been worth telling if German and Dutch klein, the closest cognates of Engl. clean, did not mean “small.” Long ago, on 4 July 2007, I devoted half of my post to the
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Its congener in Middle High German meant “brave, beautiful.” On that occasion and on several others, I noted that words may change their meaning in a truly incomprehensible, even bizarre way. I also admitted that semantic bridges are easy to construct but should be used with caution, because they tend to collapse in the middle of the river. Yet the bridge from clean to klein is rather safe. A perfect image of a semantic bridge. The Old English for clean was clæne (with a long vowel in the root; æ had the value of a in Modern Engl. man). Dictionaries offer a long array of glosses for clæne: “pure, chaste, innocent; unencumbered, unfettered; hallowed; clear; open; honorable, true; acute, sagacious, intellectual.” All of them have the same nucleus: “clear; free from dirt, filth, or impediment.” The senses have been extracted or abstracted from various contexts, and, obviously, the list could be enriched by many more synonyms. However, one should beware of shrinking it to one or two basic. . .

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News source: Linguistics – OUPblog

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