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Middle English clewe, from Old English cleowen, cliewen, cliwen (sphere, ball, skein; ball of thread or yarn; mass, group), from Proto-Germanic *kliuwiną, *klewô (ball, bale), from Proto-Indo-European *glew- (to conglomerate, gather into a mass; clump, ball, bale). Akin to Old English clǣġ (clay).



clew (plural clews)

  1. (obsolete) A roughly spherical mass or body.
    • c. 1600, Charles Estienne and Jean Liebault, tr. Richard Surflet, Maison Rustique, or, The Countrie Farme:
      If the whole troupe be diuided into many clewes, or round bunches, you need not then doubt but that there are many kings.
    • 1796, J[ohn] G[abriel] Stedman, chapter VII, in Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the Wild Coast of South America; [], volume I, London: J[oseph] Johnson, [], and J. Edwards, [], OCLC 13966308, page 153:
      Both theſe creatures [the "ai" (aye-aye?) and "unan"], by forming themſelves in a clew, have often more the appearance of excreſcences in the bark, than that of animals.
  2. (archaic) A ball of thread or yarn.
    • c. 1604–1605 (date written), William Shakespeare, “All’s VVell, that Ends VVell”, in Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies [] (First Folio), London: [] Isaac Iaggard, and Ed[ward] Blount, published 1623, OCLC 606515358, [Act I, scene iii], page 234, column 1:
      [O]nely ſinne
      And helliſh obſtinacie tye thy tongue
      That truth ſhould be ſuſpected, ſpeake, iſ't ſo?
      If it be ſo, you haue wound a goodly clewe:
      If it be not, forſweare't how ere I charge thee,
      As heauen ſhall work in me for thine auaile
      To tell me truelie.
    • 1831, Victor Hugo, tr. Isabel Florence Hapgood, The Hunchback of Notre Dame:
      A rare, precious, and never interrupted race of philosophers to whom wisdom, like another Ariadne, seems to have given a clew of thread which they have been walking along unwinding since the beginning of the world, through the labyrinth of human affairs.
    • 1889, Andrew Lang, The Blue Fairy Book, "The story of Prince Ahmed and the fairy Paribanou":
      The Fairy Paribanou was at that time very hard at work, and, as she had several clews of thread by her, she took up one, and, presenting it to Prince Ahmed, said: "First take this clew of thread...
    • 1962, Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire:
      on one side of her lay a pair of carpet slippers and on the other a ball of red wool, the leading filament of which she would tug at every now and then with the immemorial elbow jerk of a Zemblan knitter to give a turn to her yarn clew and slacken the thread.
  3. Yarn or thread as used to guide one's way through a maze or labyrinth; a guide, a clue.
    • [a. 1401, Geffray Chaucer [i.e., Geoffrey Chaucer], “termen”, in [William Thynne], editor, The Workes of Geffray Chaucer Newlye Printed, [], [London: [] Richard Grafton for] Iohn Reynes [], published 1542, OCLC 932884868, folio ccxxvi, verso, column 1:
      Therto haue I a remedye in my thought
      That by a clewe of twyne, as he hath gone
      The ſame way he may returne anone
      Folowyng alwey yͤ threde as he hath come.
      (please add an English translation of this quote)]
  4. (nautical) The lower corner(s) of a sail to which a sheet is attached for trimming the sail (adjusting its position relative to the wind); the metal loop or cringle in the corner of the sail, to which the sheet is attached. (on a triangular sail) The trailing corner relative to the wind direction.
    • 1858, Walter Mitchell, Tacking Ship Off Shore:
      'Mid the rattle of blocks and the tramp of the crew,
      Hisses the rain of the rushing squall;
      The sails are aback from clew to clew,
      And now is the moment for "MAINSAIL, HAUL!"
    • 1858, The Atlantic Monthly, "The Language of the Sea":
      "Clew" is Saxon; "garnet" (from granato, a fruit) is Italian,—that is, the garnet- or pomegranate-shaped block fastened to the clew or corner of the courses, and hence the rope running through the block.
    • 1894, James Hudson Taylor, A Retrospect:
      I went over and asked him to let down the clews or corners of the mainsail, which had been drawn up in order to lessen the useless flapping of the sail against the rigging.
    • 1901, John Conroy Hutcheson, The Ghost Ship:
      "Run aft, Haldane, and you too, Spokeshave. Loosen the bunt of the mizzen-trysail and haul at the clew. That’ll bring her up to the wind fast enough, if the sail only stands it!"
  5. (in the plural) The sheets so attached to a sail.
    • 1913, John Masefield, Dauber
      The canvas running up in a proud sweep,
      Wind-wrinkled at the clews, and white like lint,
  6. (nautical, in the plural) The cords suspending a hammock.
    • 2000, Ralph W Danklefsen, The Navy I Remember, Xlibris 2000, p. 21:
      He taught us how to attach the clews to the ends of the hammock and then lash it between jack stays.
  7. Obsolete spelling of clue
    • 1766, Laurence Sterne, The Sermons of Mr. Yorick:
      With this clew, let us endeavour to unravel this character of Herod as here given.
    • 1841, Edgar Allan Poe, The Murders in the Rue Morgue:
      To this horrible mystery there is not as yet, we believe, the slightest clew.
    • 1848, Thomas Babington Macaulay, The History of England from the Accession of James II, Volume III, 1856, Harper & Brothers, New York, page 13,
      The clew, without which it was perilous to enter the vast and intricate maze of Continental politics, was in his hands.
    • 1864, Andrew Forrester, The Female Detective:
      Now, the fact is, I had started because I thought I saw the end of a good clew.
    • 1870, Edward Augustus Freeman, History of the Norman Conquest:
      We may here have lighted on the clew to the great puzzle.
    • 1910, "Duck Eats Yeast," The Yakima Herald:
      Telltale marks around the pan of yeast gave him a clew to the trouble.
    • 1912 February–July, Edgar Rice Burroughs, “Under the Moons of Mars”, in The All-Story, New York, N.Y.: Frank A. Munsey Co., OCLC 17392886; republished as “A Fight that Won Friends”, in A Princess of Mars, Chicago, Ill.: A[lexander] C[aldwell] McClurg & Co., 1917, OCLC 419578288, page 59:
      They had followed immediately behind him, thinking it barely possible that his actions might prove a clew to my whereabouts, and had witnessed my short but decisive battle with him.
    • 1923, Robert Ervin Howard, Aha! or The Mystery of the Queen's Necklace:
      And I brought the only clew to be found.
    • 1926, Robertus Love, The Rise and Fall of Jesse James, University of Nebraska, 1990:
      Not often did Jesse James leave a clew to his identity when he galloped away from a crime of violence, back into the mysterious Nowhere whence he came.
    • 1954, Robert Heinlein, The Star Beast, New English Library:
      following the single clew that she must have gone off with a certain group of visitors from space; they knew what those visitors looked like but not from what part of the sky they came.

Coordinate terms[edit]

  • (lower corner of a sail): bunt

Derived terms[edit]

  • (lower corner of a sail, metal loop or cringle in the corner of the sail): clewline, full clew
  • (thread used to guide through a maze, clue): clewless



clew (third-person singular simple present clews, present participle clewing, simple past and past participle clewed)

  1. (transitive) to roll into a ball
  2. (nautical) (transitive and intransitive) to raise the lower corner(s) of (a sail)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Clew” in John Walker, A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary [] , London: Sold by G. G. J. and J. Robinſon, Paternoſter Row; and T. Cadell, in the Strand, 1791, →OCLC, page 145.

Middle English[edit]

Etymology 1[edit]



  1. Alternative form of clewe

Etymology 2[edit]



  1. Alternative form of clough