County Clerks, Modern and Medieval

Have you ever thought about the relationship between the words “clerk” and “clergy”? “Clerk” we associate with someone doing “clerical” work, like Kim Davis, the Rowan County Clerk who has now been jailed for contempt of court after refusing to issue marriage licences to same sex couples. County clerks are usually responsible for issuing various county licenses (marriage, motel, liquor, bingo), keeping records, issuing certificates of vital statistics (birth, death, marriage), computing tax extensions, and maintaining accurate county maps. “Clergy” we associate with any and all religious leaders, especially those ordained for religious duties in Christian denominations.

Linguistically, “clergy” and “clerk” are only distinguished by one letter, “g” instead of “k” (we can safely disregard the suffix “-y”), and these two letters are homorganic velar consonants, which means that we pronounce them in the same articulatory position, by the back part of the tongue pushing against the soft palate, the back section of the roof of the mouth. Thus, while “clerk” today is niched within the realm of secular administration and public records management, and “clergy” belongs to the realm of religious practice, there is ‘sound’ evidence that the modern semantic distinction did not exist in the past and that both words go back to the same origin.

READ THE FULL STORY at: “‘A clerk ther was of Rowan County also….’ What the Kim Davis Case Tells Us About America’s Long Middle Ages.”; and in The Medieval Magazine 32 (8 September 15): 36-8.

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