\ ˈklü How to pronounce clew (audio) \

Definition of clew

 (Entry 1 of 2)

1 : a ball of thread, yarn, or cord
3a : a lower corner or only the after corner of a sail
b : a metal loop attached to the lower corner of a sail
c clews plural : a combination of lines by which a hammock is suspended


clewed; clewing; clews

Definition of clew (Entry 2 of 2)

transitive verb

1 : to roll into a ball
2 : clue
3 : to haul (a sail) up or down by ropes through the clews

Did you know?

The "ball of thread" meaning of clew (from Middle English clewe and ultimately from Old English cliewen) has been with us since before the 12th century. In Greek mythology, Ariadne gave a ball of thread to Theseus so that he could use it to find his way out of her father's labyrinth. This, and similar tales, gave rise to the use of clew for anything that could guide a person through a difficult place. This use led, in turn, to the meaning "a piece of evidence that leads one toward the solution of a problem." Today, the variant spelling clue, which appeared in the 17th century, is the more common spelling for the "evidence" sense, but you'll find clew in some famous works of literature. Also, clew is the only choice for the sailing senses.

First Known Use of clew


before the 12th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1


15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for clew


Middle English clewe, from Old English cliewen; akin to Old High German kliuwa ball, Sanskrit glauḥ lump

Learn More About clew

Time Traveler for clew

Time Traveler

The first known use of clew was before the 12th century

See more words from the same century

Listen to Our Podcast About clew

Dictionary Entries Near clew



clew garnet

See More Nearby Entries 

Statistics for clew

Cite this Entry

“Clew.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 10 Aug. 2022.

Style: MLA
MLACheck Mark Icon ChicagoCheck Mark Icon APACheck Mark Icon Merriam-WebsterCheck Mark Icon

More from Merriam-Webster on clew

Nglish: Translation of clew for Spanish Speakers


Test Your Vocabulary

Words Named After People

  • name tags
  • Namesake of the leotard, Jules Léotard had what profession?
How Strong Is Your Vocabulary?

Test your vocabulary with our 10-question quiz!

Universal Daily Crossword

A daily challenge for crossword fanatics.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!