A Clue To ‘Clue’ Back

There is darkness all around. A distant splash of a river, mixed in with the rustle of souls walking to and from is the usual sound here. Only an occasional bark of Cerberus or a small conversation with a tried soul keeps the judges alert. This is the Greek Hades. As usual, a miserable soul walks up to one of the judges, a regal old man.


The man, Minos, once a king of Crete, sighed, and questioned the soul, “what brought you here?”  The soul bowed and answered, “I have been murdered.” Minos gestured for it to continue. “I do not know who it was, but I have clues that I have seen authorities find before my soul departed,” said the victim, reaching into the folds of its white dress. The judge paid little attention, getting lost in his thoughts. Finally, he chuckled, “clues! What a word…”


Slipping into his memory and knowledge of history, Minos began his story. “My island was home to a beast, Minotaur, held in a labyrinth. I gathered men and women to be thrown there to feed him. One year, Theseus was one of them. My daughter, Ariadne, decided to help him, so she brought him a ball of golden yarn to unwind as to not get lost in the labyrinth…” Minos stopped, but seeing that the tried soul looked confused, continued with another sigh.


“With its help, Theseus killed the beast and survived. I guess, mortals were inspired by this and wrote stories. At a time, I believe, in the 15th century, mortals called a ball of thread or yarn a ‘clew’.” Here he stopped to think, scratching his beard again. “I think it was an Old French word, also spelled ‘clewe’ or ‘cleue’, borrowed by Middle English.” Here he was timidly interrupted by the tried soul, which was sitting now sitting down on the rocky ground. “It was a Germanic word,” it whispered, pausing for a moment to see Minos’ reaction. When no anger followed, it continued, “French words ending in –ew were modified to end in –ue, but it was extended to some Germanic words as well, that ended in –w.” It stopped again to observe a neutral reaction of Minos, adding, “It happened roughly during the Great Vowel Shift, which I studied as a historian.”


Minos, lost deep in thought, slowly nodded and laughed, “So I attempted to teach history to a historian!” However, changing back to his solemn expression, Minos remarked, “But did you know that Geoffrey Chaucer popularized the figurative use of ‘clew’ by linking it to Ariadne’s thread in one of his poems?” Minos leaned forward, saying, “You know, I have met him myself!”


The soul pretended to be surprised, out of politeness, which contented Minos. The judge lifted his gaze and noticed more souls coming to his judgement. He didn’t have much time left with this one. He leaned back, and said, “thus, ‘clew’ became ‘clue’, and yarn became a symbol of guidance towards a solution. As for your murder, there is nothing I can do, except point to the direction you shall go. Let the slow river Lethe be your clue.”