\ 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

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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 spelling variant clue, which appeared in the 16th century, is the more common spelling variant for the "evidence" sense, but you'll find clew in some famous works of literature. Clew is also 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

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

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Cite this Entry

“Clew.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 18 Jun. 2021.

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More from Merriam-Webster on clew

Nglish: Translation of clew for Spanish Speakers


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