With the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation in February of 2013, people began looking ahead to the gathering of the College of Cardinals to choose a new pope. The room in which the cardinals will meet is known in both Spanish and English as a conclave, a word that by extension in both languages applies as well to the meeting held in that room. The fact that the meeting takes place in secret is reflected in the etymology of the word conclave, borrowed from the identical Latin noun. For native Spanish speakers, that compound noun is transparently a joining of con ‘with’ and clave ‘key,’ a reference to the locking of the meeting room’s door(s).

Foreigners who are in the early stages of studying Spanish soon learn that the common word for ‘key’ is llave, but they almost certainly don’t know that it’s the phonetically evolved form of the original Latin clavis that also gave rise to Spanish clave. Where llave refers literally to the thing that someone puts into a lock to open it, clave carries all the figurative senses of ‘key.’ Here they are as enumerated in the DRAE:

Código de signos convenidos para la transmisión de mensajes secretos o privados.

Conjunto de reglas y correspondencias que explican este código.

Nota o explicación que necesitan algunos libros o escritos para la inteligencia de su composición artificiosa; como la Argenis de Barclayo.

Noticia o idea por la cual se hace comprensible algo que era enigmático.

Signo o combinación de signos para hacer funcionar ciertos aparatos.

Spanish clave is also the cognate of the French clef that has passed into English. A clave/clef, in the words of the 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, is ‘a character used in musical notation to determine the position and pitch of the scale as represented on the staff.’ In some Spanish-speaking countries in and bordering the Caribbean, clave has taken on another musical sense as the collective name for ‘two cylindrical wooden sticks that are banged together as a percussion instrument.’ English now also uses clave in that way and retains (approximately) the Spanish pronunciation.

One other place that clave appears in English is in the compound autoclave, which is spelled the same in Spanish. As the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica explained, an autoclave is ‘a strong closed vessel of metal in which liquids can be heated above their boiling points under pressure. Etymologically the word indicates a self-closing vessel (auto, self, and clavis, key…), in which the tightness of the joints is maintained by the internal pressure….’

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Mar 03, 2013 @ 12:03:23

    Interesting about the autoclave. I never would have guessed that!

    I do wonder if, at the conclave, they might dust off the keyboard of the clavier, temper it well and provide a little musical interlude?


  2. Juan Luis Calbarro
    Mar 03, 2013 @ 16:37:29

    I have looked for clue‘s etymology and only found one for clew with another meaning (“a ball of thread”), akin to Old High German kliuwa (“ball”); I cannot believe that there is not another etymology for clew/clue meaning “key” or “hint” which is related to latin clavis!


  3. kathryningrid
    Mar 04, 2013 @ 20:43:31

    Intriguing. It’s going to be mighty interesting to see how this particular papal lockdown ends.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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