Q&A: Click or clique

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?

A: Bitchy?

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?

A: Exactly.

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!

Browse posts by category
Browse posts by category

Courses starting soon


Nice one! You've added this to your cart