Clerk (Part II)

In “Clerk (Part I),” we saw how the meaning of the English clerk has changed over the centuries. We also saw that this clerk ultimately derives from the Greek κλῆρος (kleros), an “inheritance” or “lot,” used in Greek texts of the Bible. So, what does “inheritance” or “lot” have to do with clergy, anyway? Scholars point to two Biblical usages of κλῆρος (kleros).

“Twigs.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Chapter and verse

The first is in Deuteronomy 18.2, where God is described as the “inheritance” of the Levites. All the ancient tribes of Israel, as it goes, were promised land except for the Levites. They were the priests. They were temple assistants. The original clerks, if you will. Due to their sacred, sacerdotal responsibilities, they weren’t allotted any land. Instead, they lived off the tithings the other landed tribes provided them.

The second is in Acts 1.17. Here, Judas is described as one of the “number” of the 12 apostles and “shared in” the ministry. After Jesus’ resurrection and Judas hanged himself, the apostles needed to replace him to carry out their ministry. The apostles cast lots between two other disciples, Barsabbas and Matthias. The “lot fell” to Matthias.  So close, Barsabbas.

And how did Ancient Greeks draw lots? Well, this κλῆρος (kleros) was literally a little “twig,” “wood chip,” “potsherd,” or, according to Liddell and Scott, even a “clod of earth.” Liddell and Scott point us to Homeric usages: Men would mark their lots, or little shards, and toss them into a helmet. Then, someone would shake the helmet and the first that fell out was the winning lot.

As the twig is bent

If we want to break apart κλῆρος (kleros) into smaller pieces, Proto-Indo-Europeanists direct us to *kel-, “to strike” or “cut,” with “derivatives referring to something broken or cut off” like a “twig” or “piece of wood,” to quote the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD). The AHD notes a number of other interesting derivates of *kelincluding the Germanic hilt and Hilda, the Celtic claymore, and the Italic gladiator. Apparently, the twig is mightier than the sword. Aside from clerk, Greek descendants also include clonecalamity, and iconoclast.

For as much as the word clerk has branched out, etymology and Kim Davis do have one thing in common: they both cite the Bible.

Twigs_ink on paper_scribblem ∫ r ∫


5 thoughts on “Clerk (Part II)

  1. I can’t help but not be reminded when read this of the similar ὄστρακον (óstrakon) “potsherd” relationship to “ostracise” from ὀστρακίζω ‎(ostrakízō) “I ostracise” – banishment by voting with potsherds.

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