UK paperback


A handy word

The Guardian assigns to my review of Mark Z Danielewski’s new book the headline “O how clever”. Does this imply a positively sceptical view of the book’s virtues? Is it even possible to use the word “clever” as simple praise? I had thought it was, but a quick search of reveals its use here, both by me and by commentators, to range from sarcastic to downright abusive. Of course there are lots of insulting compounds featuring the word “clever”: clever clogs, clever dick, or clever-clever. The OED‘s first citation for clever-clever is from George Bernard Shaw in 1896. It would be interesting to know if this predates too clever by half, since then we would see a sort of implacable mathematical lowering of the ceiling for being considered too clever: from clever x 2 to clever x 1.5. Now, if “clever” by itself is bad, the formula has reached clever x 1.

But the intellectual sense of “clever” is anyway more recent than I had supposed. The OED and Chambers Dictionary of Etymology both suggest a root in Middle English clivre, claw or talon. And for most of its history the word has indeed meant manually adroit. In the late 19th century one could still call a drawing “clever”. The first edition of the OED in the early 20th century gives the “current sense” as hovering between the old meaning and the new: “Possessing skill or talent; able to use hand or brain readily and effectively”, although it looks like the word had already begun to have negative associations earlier, as a line from an 1858 poem, “Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever”, may indicate.

A sense of “clever” now totally lost to us comes from an 1804 citation: “Clever in New England means honest, conscientious.” These days “clever” means almost the opposite. Its root sense of working skilfully with the hands is not lost but rendered metaphorical: the word implies a kind of intellectual prestidigitation, mere mental tricks and technique designed to bamboozle an honest fellow. But what is mysterious is that, if “clever” is an insult, its negation is still an insult. It ought to be a compliment to say, for example, that George W Bush is not a very clever man. But somehow it doesn’t sound like one.

  1. 1  bobw  October 2, 2006, 8:59 pm 

    Well, I think the Guardian used “clever” in the same way you did, to trick the reader into reading further. My first thought was that the headline was a comment on your review — maybe a bit too precious for the subject — but then when I read it,I realized you had actually made a heroic attempt to grapple with what sounds like at least an irritating text. You admit that much in the second to last sentence.

    This leads me to conclude that the Guardian used clever in just the way you explained it, as a put down. They added what you were too respectful to say.

  2. 2  DF  October 2, 2006, 9:35 pm 

    In his memoir, Moab is my Washpot, Stephen Fry wondered whether the rather English usage of “clever” as an insult isn’t in some sort of a relationship, conscious or otherwise, with a strain of English anti-semitism. He listed public figures to whom this word is often sneeringly attached (from memory, the ones he cited were Peter Mandelson, Jonathan Miller and Freddie Raphael – plus himself, obviously) and suggested that they tended to be Jewish, or partly Jewish. Ever since I read that I’ve tried to keep an eye on this usage. My highly unscientific impression is that Fry was onto something.

    A totally unrelated piece of trivia: in contemporary East London slang, to say that someone is “not looking too clever” means that they are in bad physical shape (usually following an altercation).

  3. 3  Steven  October 2, 2006, 10:53 pm 

    Bobw, the book is certainly irritating in some ways, as I described, but it wasn’t quite that I was too “respectful” to say it was somehow too clever (which is the sense I get from the headline’s use of the word). My instinct hitherto (except on this blog) has been to use “clever” as a term of praise, but I will be more careful now.

    Dylan Falsifiah, it’s an interesting theory of Fry’s, but it seems to me that lots of people are also denounced as clever who aren’t Jewish, a fact which places some hurdle in the theory’s path. “Clever” does not, or at least not yet, seem to me to be on the order of “rootless cosmopolitan”. I must say I don’t normally expect to see Peter Mandelson mentioned in the same sentence as Jonathan Miller and Frederick Raphael. That was a pleasant surprise.

    By the way, I had initially written that the original meaning of “clever” was “dexterous”, but scrubbed it because of that word’s prejudice against left-handers. But what I wrote instead, “adroit”, of course harbours the same bigotry against us sinister folk.

  4. 4  DF  October 2, 2006, 11:44 pm 

    I agree it’s not of the order of “rootless cosmopolitan”, or even “North London”, also deployed as code from time to time. And of course there are lots of counter-examples to Fry’s suggestion – Martin Amis springs to mind for some reason. He thinks it’s a tendency, not a rule, and I did him a disservice if I didn’t make that clear. But I still think it’s well worth bearing the suggestion in mind as one keeps an eye on when precisely this C-word crops up.

  5. 5  bobw  October 3, 2006, 3:52 am 

    Would either of you (DF and SP) mention some “clever” people in the US, so I can see what you mean. I know Frederick Raphael, but cant think of anyone like him over here.

    From a long time ago, I remember “clever” being used about young people, college graduates, who were very glib, but not at all proven yet. A “clever” young man encountered at a cocktail party, or a series of them, is someone a mother hasnt quite taken stock of yet, and isnt sure whether he’s a catch or someone to warn her daughter away from. The father would just say “humph, young puppy!”

  6. 6  DF  October 3, 2006, 7:43 am 

    Bobw, I think the point that was being made by Stephen Fry is that there was something that was peculiarly English about this use of “clever” as an insult, that it reflects a distinctive kind of philistinism (and, he argued, anti-semitism) that may not have a direct American equivalent.

  7. 7  Steven  October 3, 2006, 7:48 am 

    I will certainly keep an eye on it, Dylan Falsifiah. I seem to remember the word having been bandied about in relation to Anthony Julius quite a lot.

    A quick google search reveals that the American Milton scholar and provocateur Stanley Fish is often called “clever”.

  8. 8  DF  October 3, 2006, 4:05 pm 

    Those two are terrific illustrations of the Fry hypothesis. Bang-on.

    It seems polymaths (Julius, Fish, Jonathan Miller, Fry) are the focus of particular resentment.

  9. 9  sw  October 3, 2006, 6:38 pm 

    One can look at the use of “cunning” and “wise” in Marlowe’s Jew of Malta as a precursor to the insinuations tucked into “clever”. (As an aside, a very quick search of a Shakespeare concordance seems to show that “cunning”, which appears in numerous plays, only pops up once in Merchant of Venice, in a context that suggests no immediate relationship to the theme of anti-Semitism or Jewishness – I suppose Shakespeare invented more cliches than he propagated).

    By the way, in the deepest fogs of night between midnight and dawn, I thoroughly enjoyed the clarity of, and crisp selection of quotes in, the Mark Z Danielewski review linked to above – as one who loved House of Leaves, I had rather hoped to skip this new book; your review, however, has convinced me otherwise – so, thanks.

  10. 10  Steven  October 3, 2006, 7:49 pm 

    Interesting re The Jew of Malta. All uses of the word “cunning” are put into Barabas’s mouth. It is especially notable that he advises his daughter to be “like a cunning Jew”.

    But what is your point about “wise”? There are three “wise”s in the play, excluding one which means “manner”. Of these three “wise”s, two are spoken by Barabas himself, both sarcastically, and the other is not about Barabas. There is also a “wisely”, spoken in admiration of Barabas by Third Jew. I’m not sure how this is a precursor to the insinuations tucked into “clever”.

    I am sorry not to have given you permission to skip Only Revolutions, but I think you may enjoy it.

  11. 11  sw  October 3, 2006, 8:40 pm 

    Yes, now, I don’t really want to get into an argument about the specific uses of “cunning” and “wise” in Jew of Malta, any more than you, above, parsed out the specific insinuations of “clever” in its possibly guised and possibly derogatory association with Jewishness.

    At the same time, I can’t quite help myself. I was pointing to Jew of Malta as an example where we have a “Jew” talking a lot about “cunning”, and, as you say, telling his daughter to be “like a cunning Jew”. Well, perhaps “cunning”, as a brittle intelligence laced with manipulation, deception, selfishness, moral blindness, etc. is the historical precedent for the modern use of “clever” as discussed above (I am not suggesting that anybody, including Barabas, actually fits these criteria, or that this is all that Marlowe was doing; I am only suggesting that perhaps this is what Marlowe was putting into play, in the play). Of the three uses of “wise”, you seem to be quite right: Barabas is using “wise” sarcastically, and then there is the Third Jew who uses “wisely” of Barabas. I’m not so sure the Third Jew is a great judge of character, and what he means by “wisely” may be “in admiration”, but it is the admiration of the weak and fallen for the strong and fallen. In other words, the Third Jew’s use of “wisely” can also just be so much code.

  12. 12  Steven  October 3, 2006, 9:04 pm 

    But you brought up the specific uses of “cunning” and “wise” in The Jew of Malta! And now you complain that you don’t want to talk about them? Shall I just stop replying to this stuff?

    I’m sure you’re right about “cunning”, though I’m not sure it ever had a morally-neutral meaning as did “clever”.

  13. 13  sw  October 3, 2006, 9:25 pm 

    Was that a rhetorical question, about you not replying?

    “Clever” was discussed above, delicately and not inappropriately, without exploring _why_ it might be a type of specific code; I was merely continuing in that vein by pointing out a similar concordance, in a much older text, with similar words. You started challenging me on “wise”, to which I responded, but while also expressing my initial reticence to pursue that topic, probably for the same reasons that none of you, above, chose to pursue it.

    Thank you for agreeing with me about “cunning”; I’m probably right about “wisely”, too. I suspect that you are right about “cunning” being less morally-neutral, but am not certain of it. Of course, the sting has been taken out of “cunning” ever since “I have a cunning plan . . . “

    “Baldrick, that plan is about as useful as a two-legged cow with a bag over its head, led by a farmer with the IQ of a demented badger . . . But it just might work.” Or something like that.

  14. 14  Steven  October 9, 2006, 5:56 pm 

    In today’s Guardian, Lucian Freud says of the works of Damien Hirst:

    I think they’re clever. They don’t stay in my mind.

  15. 15  Larry Lamb  October 11, 2006, 1:50 pm 

    “Cunning” is from the OE version meaning “to know” (cf. Scots “ken”); OED citations suggest original uses were morally unfreighted.

    Re “anti-clever” as an English, specifically non-US, form of philistine anti-Semitism, surely the whole American “jocks vs nerds” thing is exactly that?

hit parade

    guardian articles

    older posts