Meanings: “Clique”

October 3, 2014

I skipped over the questions that asked “Favorite PHS Memory” and “Worst PHS Memory.” They were asking about my years at Penfield High School (suburban Rochester, New York), 1960 to 1964. Do the math and you’ll see this is my 50th reunion year. We’re celebrating this weekend.

I didn’t answer the questions because I certainly didn’t want to write anything about my worst memory, and I do have a few. (I also certainly have some very good memories of friends and teachers, and of a few moments of triumph, including my high school’s first perfect score on an Earth Science Regents exam.)

One classmate wrote a single word in response to “Worst PHS Memory:” “cliques.” That word rocketed me back to the early 1960s. I can’t remember using or hearing the word since then, but that surely was the word we used often to describe all the smallish, exclusive sets of people who hung out with each other–and only with each other. There was a strong status hierarchy among these “cliques.” You were nobody if you weren’t in one of those special cliques.

Where did that word come from, I wondered. here’s the etymology:

clique (n.)Look up clique at Dictionary.com1711, “a party of persons; a small set, especially one associating for exclusivity,” from obsolete French clique, originally (14c.) “a sharp noise,” also “latch, bolt of a door,” from Old French cliquer “click, clatter, crackle, clink,” 13c., echoic. Apparently this word was at one time treated in French as the equivalent of claque(q.v.) and partook of that word’s theatrical sense.

So it is French in origin and derived from a sound. And may be derived from “claque.” Here’s the etymology on that:

claque (n.) Look up claque at Dictionary.com1860, from French claque “band of claqueurs,” agent noun from claquer “to clap” (16c.), echoic (compare clap (v.)). Modern sense of “band of political followers” is transferred from that of “organized applause at theater.” Claqueur “audience member who gives pre-arranged responses in a theater performance” is in English from 1837.

This method of aiding the success of public performances is very ancient; but it first became a permanent system, openly organized and controlled by the claquers themselves, in Paris at the beginning of the nineteenth century. [Century Dictionary]

I had wondered whether the sound of a latch indicated a shutting out of some people, but apparently not.

The Google Ngram picture is fascinating, too:

Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 9.32.55 AM

Over time, “clique” was most common in English right about the time I was in high school and its use declines sharply after that. “Claque” has never been a term as commonly used. And “cabal,” another term for a loosely organized group, shows a steady decline in usage.

Among my classmates I’ve seen that the “cliques” are less in evidence as we’ve gathered for previous reunions. But the memories linger, and that word summons those memories.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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