It was Theseus in the Labyrinth with the Ball of String

Nowadays, we know a “clue” to be something that reveals information or serves to solve a problem. However, there is quite a yarn to be spun as to how we got here.

You see, “clue” is an orthographical shift from a Middle English term, “clewe”, and Old English “cleowen” before that, which translates as a ball of yarn. This can be traced back to Proto-Germanic and has modern parallels with German and Dutch words – which is why we might not expect the origin to come from Greek mythology.

According to the myth, on the island of Crete, there was a labyrinth in which dwelled a half-man, half-bull creation called the Minotaur. This creature was the offspring of the king of Crete, Minos’ wife, Pasiphaë, and a bull – no, me neither – and naturally the former wasn’t too pleased about this genetic cocktail. Naturally, a hero pops up to deal with said beast, Theseus.

It was well established that finding one’s way through the labyrinth was a bit confusing, ergo Ariadne, daughter of Minos, supplied Theseus with a ball of string with which he could leave a trail to find his way back out. Retrospectively, English speakers later on would refer to this ball of string as a ““clewe” and so it begins.

As a side note, “Minotaur” comes from “Minos” (eponymous with the chap himself) and Greek “Tauros”, meaning “bull” – not to be confused with your zodiac sign, which is actually Latin.

It is from this kind of specific context and particular meaning that words often develop symbolic connotations, and in this case that meant that the little ball of yarn came to represent a helping hand in all manner of mysteries and malfunctions, becoming the term we use today.

The first known usage of “clue” with its modern definition comes in the rather verbose Logick: Or, The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry after Truth by Isaac Watts in 1724;

When the Reader is passing over such a Treatise, he often finds a wide Vacancy, and makes an uneasy Stop, and knows not how to transport his Thoughts over to the next Particular, for Want of some Clue or connecting Idea to lay hold of.

Isaac Watts, 1724

Sympathy or Empathy – It’s All Greek to Us

The words “sympathy” and “empathy” began their nascent existence in Classical Greece, and as you might expect based on that alone, their disparity is wholly philosophical and a little on the subtle side.

Sympathy originates from Greek “sumpatheia”, stemming from “sun” and “pathos”. This literally translates to “with feeling”.

Empathy, on the other hand, shares “pathos” but replaces the prefix with “em”, meaning “in”, to create “empatheia”, or, “in feeling”.

This is logical as empathy is the ability to understand someone’s situation, typically from first-hand experience or exposure – “in feeling”. Whereas sympathy is a little more detached, which means to have pity, sorrow or concern for someone, yet not necessarily true understanding of what they’re experiencing.

“Sympathy” reaches us in English through a string of Latinate languages, from Greek into Latin “sympathīa“, from Latin into Middle French “sympathie” and finally, by the late 16th Century, into “sympathy” that we use today.

“Empathy”, however, doesn’t seem to have been an English word until the late-19th or early-20th Century (first printed in 1909). This coincides with the theory of “Einfühlung“, first printed in 1873, which was a German term that expanded on the definition of “empathy” to include feelings towards the world around them in addition to human emotion, most notably at the time, this was applied to artwork and literature.

Equally, we gain “apathy” (“apatheia” – “without feeling”) and “antipathy” (“antipatheia” – against feeling”) through this transitive ladder of Greek, Latin and then French. Even “telepathy”, with “tele” meaning “distant” or “at a distance”.

So there you have it; the two words are not exactly interchangeable, although I’m sure all but the most ardent pedants would forgive you for mistaking one for the other from time to time.

Letting the Cat Out of the Bag

To let the cat out of the bag is an idiom, meaning to reveal a secret, and the best theory we have of its origin stems from a pig in a poke. Don’t panic, I’ll explain that one, too.

A pig in a poke is another idiom, meaning a product that is bought in packaging, thus the contents are not visible to the buyer upon purchase. The name itself derives from purchasing suckling pigs at markets, which were kept in bags or sacks – or a “poke” – to prevent them from escaping. “Poke” comes from the French “poque“, which is where we get “pouch” and “pocket”.

The theory being that people were sold such bags under the pretence that inside were juicy, delicious suckling pigs when, in fact, they were being sold an incredibly less valuable cat. The “letting the cat out of the bag” being the wholly too-late realisation of the customer that they had been scammed into buying said cat, and therefore the fraudster’s secret coming to light.

This is referred to by John Heywood in 1555, who wrote;

I wyll neuer bye the pyg in the poke Thers many a foule pyg in a feyre cloke

John Heywood, 1555

There are translations in French, Dutch and German for this idiom, indicating that it was a common enough scam throughout European societies.

This version has faced much criticism, simply because it seems someone would have to be rather dense to mistake a cat for a piglet – the Spanish equivalent seems more plausible, “dar gato por liebre“, “giving a cat instead of a hare”.

The idiom itself has no record until 1760, however, and saw a surge in usage throughout the late 18th Century, which implies that it was a new-fangled thing.

Although we may not know for a certainty where the phrase came from, one thing is certain…

Letting the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than putting it back in.

Will Rogers