When we see a w in a Spanish word, we know that Spanish borrowed the word from another language. In the case of clown, which my dictionary indicates Spanish pronounces the same as English, the contributing language was indeed English, but clown isn’t native in English, either. The American Heritage Dictionary notes that it comes from a Germanic language and offers Scandinavian klunni ‘clumsy person’ as a possible source. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that the spellings clowne and cloyne appeared in English in the 1560s, when the word meant ‘rustic, boor, peasant.’ Other possible relatives are Swedish kluns ‘a hard knob; a clumsy fellow,’ Danish klunt ‘log, block,’ and North Frisian klönne ‘clumsy person.’ Whatever the origin of clown, English has derived from it the adjective clownish and the abstract noun clowning. That last, which looks just like a present participle, reminds us that English has a lot of freedom to use a word as different parts of speech, so that clown can be not only a noun but also a verb, in which role it is often followed by around.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Dec 15, 2013 @ 22:43:47

    More and more often, I’m coming across statements like, “It’s not cool to clown someone on their Facebook page”. From what I can tell, it’s a way of saying it’s not cool to deceive someone or trick them, often with trollish behavior.

    The implication of clumsiness is interesting. When I was a kid, clowns were regarded as skilled. They juggled, they trained dogs to do tricks. They didn’t depend so much on physical comedy. The last bastion of that may be the rodeo clown, who still attempts to project an aura of apparent clumsiness or thick-headedness even while engaging in his highly skilled and dangerous profession.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Dec 17, 2013 @ 08:24:38

      (I replied to this yesterday, but somehow my reply disappeared.) I haven’t run across clown as an active verb yet, but the digital world has given rise to new uses of old words (e.g. mouse, icon, window), so I can’t say I’m surprised. Clown (as opposed to clown around) also fits the trend of dropping the second part of two-word verbs, for example passed instead of passed away.

      What you said about the skill of clowns made me think of the Harlem Globe Trotters.


      • shoreacres
        Dec 17, 2013 @ 09:41:16

        A few years ago, I obtained a 700 page book that records the history of the area where my parents grew up. It’s all family-submitted information – newspaper clippings, photos and so on.

        Because my mother was on her school’s basketball team, I had read through most of the sports entries, and remembered this.

        Basketball in Melcher moved into a new home in 1931-1932 as primarily community volunteer labor completed the quonset hut structure just north of the school…

        Not only were their school games played there…it was also common during the 20’s and 30’s that professional touring teams played here. Examples of crowd-pleasing clown teams were Olson’s Terrible Sweedes, Gilkerson’s Union City Giants, and the Original Harlem Globetrotters.

        The appearance of the Trotters was delayed one week when their Model A got stuck between Pleasantville and Melcher and arrived too late. They returned on a later date to play.

        My gosh.


        • Steve Schwartzman
          Dec 17, 2013 @ 10:44:15

          I remember the Quonset (or quonset) hut as something that came into being in World War II, so I was puzzled by the mention of a quonset hut in 1931-32. At

          I found that the World War I predecessor was a British building called the Nissen hut, so perhaps that or something like that is what your mother played in, and later writers would anachronistically have called it a quonset hut.


  2. Kathryn
    Dec 16, 2013 @ 23:20:33

    So, is ‘clod’ attached to this group? Seems like a cousin, perhaps


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Dec 17, 2013 @ 08:32:12

      I’ll have to be a clod and say that I don’t know. Clod apparently arose as a variant of clot, but none of the etymological dictionaries I’ve looked in connects that to clown or its Germanic antecedents. Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a relationship.


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