Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have clique-bait…
Q: Hi AWC, you know the cool group of girls in high school that won’t let anyone else hang out with them. What is that called?
Q: Well yes, but is it a “click” or a “clique”? I’ve seen both written.
A: Ah right. Yeah, the exclusive group is a “clique”. It’s been in English since 1711, and as you might suspect, it’s originally from an Old French word, which meant ‘a sharp sound’ or ‘the bolt of a door’.
Q: The kind of bolt you use to stop people from joining your clique?
Q: So, is it “click” in America – you know, like they write ‘check’ versus our ‘cheque’?
A: Oh, that’s an interesting theory, but nope – everyone uses “clique” for the same snobby select group.
Q: Why do some people get confused then?
A: Well for starters, they usually sound identical (although “clique” can also be said with a “cleek” vs “click” sound). And some people simply don’t know about the more obscure one-use word like “clique”.
Q: Hmmm. I suppose so.
A: It’s also a classic example of an “eggcorn” – a mistaken word use that endures because it seems to make sense. In this case, the meaning “to click with someone” first appeared in 1915 and seems similar to a group of cool kids hanging out together.
Q: I read something online that said that you can have “click” groups – they’re more inclusive, shared-interest groups versus “clique” groups, which are all about exclusion. What do you think of that?
A: It’s a nice idea, probably suggested by a psychologist. However, no dictionary supports the noun “click” in this way. Not yet anyway!
Q: Tell me more about “click”.
A: Well, it too came from that same Old French word “clique” – arriving in English around 1600 as a verb and noun – with an onomatopoeic definition relating to the sharp sound.
Q: What about how something ‘clicks’ when you finally get it?
A: According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, that meaning didn’t arrive until 1939 – probably when everyone ‘clicked’ that the German with the small moustache was actually not quite as nice as he was claiming.
Q: I know a little German.
A: Oh really? What can you say?
Q: Um, I can say “good morning Helga”. Helga is from Dresden and very little.
A: Groan. Actually, while we’re mocking Helga, do you know the French word for “stereotype”?
Q: Hmmm, is it “stereotypique”?
A: Haha, nice try. No, it’s actually “cliché”…
Q: …wait a second, that’s not related to…?
A: It sure is! It ALSO came from a French variant of “to click”, arriving in English in the early 1800s as printer’s jargon for a “stereotype” block of type. The echo sound of the block hitting metal was the stereo/click part.
Q: So when did “cliché” start meaning “a trite expression” etc?
A: “Cliché” evolved from the sameness that you get when reproducing prints using that metal plate. This “worn out, overused” vibe was figuratively linked to expressions first in 1888 – although it didn’t properly take off until the 1920s. The word “stereotype” of course followed a similar path and both have slightly negative connotations today.
Q: So to recap, “clique”, “click” and “cliché” are all cousins etymologically, but mean different things. And the idea of a snobby group of high school girls being your typical “clique” is probably itself a “cliché”…
A: Good point! Now, click your heels three times because it’s time to go home.
If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!