From Clues—Batch 2

Henry Walters

Dear Kid,

Of grammar’s simple machines, I’ve decided that the CLUE is the simplest. A conjunction of time’s sentences. It joins them—well, dreamily, if not in fact. In fact, I’ve changed my mind. A clue keeps things apart, while hinting that they belong together. A bridge made out of barbed wire. That’s not it either. Let me try again.

Clue was once spelled clew, which means a ball (or bottom) of thread. Later it would come to mean a sign, a hint, a piece of evidence—at first it was a ball of thread. When Theseus found his way out of the labyrinth, he used a clew, & what we meant by it has been different ever since.

But while clue & thread are close friends, clue & glue are first cousins. They share a common ancestor, the Proto-Indo-European root *gleh₁y-, which seems to have meant something like sticky. The Proto-Indo-Europeans left us no dictionaries—in fact, they seem to have written nothing down at all, more’s the pity. Other members of the *gleh₁y- family include the words clay, climb, & cleave. Cleave is a special one, being hermaphroditic—that is, a word whose homonym is also its opposite. It divides itself from what it clings to.

To begin again. Clues are sticky. Clues are rampant. They are machines for gluing an entrance to its exit by means of a skinny filament. They are singularly plural, plural singularities. They are strands of clay disguised in meaningful shapes. Remember Midsummer Night’s Dream? When the Rude Mechanicals stage a play at the court of Theseus, for instance, Bottom the Weaver dresses up as Pyramus, a lover separated from his love by a wall. Luckily, there is a hole in the wall, through which the lovers whisper & kiss.

A hole makes an excellent clue. Its potential explosive force outward is offset by an agglutinative that keeps it quite small & quite dense.

Yours Truly

Henry Walters is a naturalist, teacher, falconer, and writer-in-residence at the Dublin School, in Dublin, New Hampshire. He is the author of Field Guide A Tempo.
Originally published:
November 6, 2018


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