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.

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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.


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.

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