Thursday, June 2, 2016

Language Of Confusion: Wait, Cline Is Actually A Word?

I started this etymology post intending to muse on the suffix -cline and how strange it is that decline is a word but cline isn’t. Then Word didn’t put the red squiggly line underneath cline when I typed it out. Apparently it’s really a word, meaning either the gradual change of certain characteristics in species or scale of continuous gradation in linguistics. What the hell…

To further the weirdness, cline didn’t even show up in English until 1938, coming from either the word incline or the Greek klinein, slope or lean. Despite not appearing until last century, there was actually a Middle English version of the word, clinen, bend or bow, coming from the Old French cliner and classical Latin clinare, decline. I guess this means that people stopped using the word in Middle English only to form a new version of the word centuries later. By the way, that clinare comes from the Proto Indo European klei, lean or incline. It’s also the origin word for lean because apparently we stopped using the K in front of it.

Incline showed up in the early fourteenth century with pretty much the same meaning. It comes from the Old French encliner, bend or lean, and classical Latin inclinare, which is just, you know, incline. The prefix in- means into or in, and we know clinare means bend, so it means to make something bend toward you. Well, at least this one makes sense.

Decline showed up in the late fourteenth century meaning turn aside or deviate—more figurative than incline when it started. It comes from the Old French decliner and classical Latin (bet you can’t guess this) declinare, decline. De- means from in this case. Combined with clinare, it’s bend/lean from, which…actually makes sense.

Finally, recline. It showed up in the early fifteenth century, coming from the Old French recliner, rest or bend over, and classical Latin reclinare, which…come on, you know it’s just recline. The re- prefix means back or against, so it’s lean/bend against, which is what reclining is.

So the only really confusing part of this one is that the word cline exists. Has anyone actually heard it used before?



  1. Yes, I have. Now that one made sense.
    Hope you're doing all right, JE.

  2. I've never heard it used. Only in terms of the expanded words, not cline in and of itself.

  3. cline in German - spelt klein - means small. Probably no connection whatsoever :):)Great post, as ever. Very informative with a giggle thrown in :) Love it!

  4. I just tried it in my Scrabble game and it took it. I think I've tried it before. I get really creative when it comes to making up words.

  5. Yeah, I knew it was a word, but I've never used it. You could say something like, "The cline of the road is..."

  6. Since it's a linguistics term, I feel like I probably heard it at university, but apparently it didn't stick, because I'm also surprised.

  7. Nope, never heard of cline. But then again, I've never heard of a lot of words.


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