Clerk (Part I)

County clerk Kim Davis went back to work yesterday after being released from jail over her refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses in Rowan Co., Ky. Let’s have a closer look at her job description. Etymologically, that is.

Over the centuries, "clerk" has taken on different registers. "Register."  Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Over the centuries, “clerk” has taken on many different registers. “Register.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Clerk

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first records clerk in the late 900s. Way back then, it took the forms of cleric and clerc, among other forms, and referred to “an ordained minister” in the Christian Church. During the Middle Ages, literacy was largely the domain of the clergy, whose very name is also related to clerk, as are cleric and clerical. These clerks often put their literacy to use for various secular purposes, helping with accounts, records, and other transactions that required their book learning.

So, by the 1200s, a clerk more generally came to describe “a person who could read and write.” Thus, Chaucer writes of the Clerk of Oxenford, a “scholar” from Oxford. Alas, his tale is not of a dictionary, but of marriage, fittingly enough. This sense of clerk remains in a law clerk, say, who helps a judge research an issue or write her opinions.

By the 1500s, with the further spread of literacy, clerk took off its collar. The term came to refer to “an officer in charge of the records, correspondence, and accounts” of an organization, as the OED observes. Such record-keeping is demanded of administrative or office work, which is why we might call it clerical work. Today, this term can take a pejorative tone, ironically enough for the rare and specialized ability that literacy historically was. Now that’s a clerical error, no?

This record-keeping sense of clerk also continues today in county clerk. A county clerk in the US is often in charge of the county’s vital records, such as birth and death certificates and marriage licenses, as we’ve seen (or not) in Kim Davis’s case.

Records, correspondence, accounts? The books? Shops have those, and so shops have clerks. The OED documents this clerk, a North American usage for a “shop-assistant,” by 1790. Today’s retail clerk can have a thankless job, if the hellish depiction of it in Kevin Smith’s indie film Clerks is any measure – once again ironic, given the history of the word.

“Lots” of Clerks

So, there have been a lot of clerks over the years. If we consider that language is constantly changing and the meanings of words evolve, this is the “lot” of clerk.

Whether borrowed directly or through French, all of the clerkly words we’ve seen thus far –  clergyclerkcleric, and clerical, not to mention the name and surname Clark – derive from Late Latin’s clēricus, a “priest” or “clergyman.” The word is technically a substantive adjective, meaning “of or belonging to the clērus.Clērus means, well, “clergy.”

This Latin term was used in early church writings, as was Ecclesiastical Greek before it, from which Latin took this clērusEcclesiastical Greek had κληρικός (klerikos)itself a term for the “clergy.” Literally, however, it meant “pertaining to an inheritance.” As Liddell and Scott explain, the root of this κληρικός (klerikos) is κλῆρος (kleros), a “lot,” as in “drawn by lots.” The term also was applied to “an allotment of land,” especially conquered foreign lands portioned out to citizens. English’s very own lot shares a similar sense development.

What could “inheritance” and “lot” possibly have to do with Christian ministry?  We’ll pick it up next post.

Register_Ink on Paper_scribblem ∫ r ∫

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6 thoughts on “Clerk (Part I)

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