An American Editor

April 2, 2010

On Words: Clinch and Clench

In a recent New York Times article, U.S. Senator Robert Bennett (Republican of Utah) was quoted as saying “…it was through clinched teeth that they welcomed me.…” Immediately, I thought “you mean ‘clenched teeth.'” Although I was certain clench was correct, I decided I better check.

In olden days, way back in the 16th century and perhaps even earlier, clinch and clench were identical in usage terms — they meant and referred to the same thing. Clench, a verb, can trace its roots to about 1250 and to clenchen from The Owl and the Nightingale. Clenchen developed from the Old English beclencan, meaning to hold fast, and has Germanic roots (i.e., klenkan in Old High German and klenken in Middle High German, both of which meant to tie, knot, or entwine).

Clinch came into being about 1570 as a variant of clench, as a verb meaning fasten firmly. Approximately 60 years later, the noun clinch, meaning to settle decisively (the figurative sense) came into use. Clincher took a sidetrack; originally it was a noun (1330) to describe a worker who put in clinching nails. The first recorded use of clincher as meaning a conclusive argument or statement was in 1737.

Clinch became Americanized in the 19th century to mean the sense of a struggle at close quarters (1849) and morphed to mean a tight fighting grasp (1875). As its history shows, the general sense occurs early in English, but the modern technical use is American.

Along the way, clinch and clench became differentiated. In American usage, clinch became figurative and clench became physical. As Bryan Garner (Modern American Usage) puts it: “Hence you clinch an argument or debate but you clench your jaw or fist.” I have been unable to identify either the point at which usage shifted or any sources that can identify the shift. It isn’t clear to me the basis for Garner’s statement except that it comports with my understanding of the terms.

Even so, it isn’t clear from the dictionaries or from usage that Senator Bennett was clearly wrong in his use of clinch rather than clench. I concede that clench sounds better, sounds more correct, to my ear, and if I were his speechwriter, clench would be the word I would have chosen.

If you have any additional information on the separation of clinch and clench, particularly in the American lexicon, I would appreciate your sharing it with me.


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