Does inclement weather have anything to do with citrus fruit?

21 May

On Wednesday night, travelling home was a nightmare.  It was raining outside (a rare occurrence at the moment!) and, as a result, everyone heads underground into the Tube.  I shuffled through Bank station, so tightly packed my nose was pressed between the shoulder blades of a stranger’s back.

The guard came on the tannoy and told us to move carefully as the floors were slippery, thanks to the inclement weather.  Apart from the irony of the statement (we could hardly move at all!), a thought suddenly popped into my head – “does the ‘inclement’ part relate etymologically to a clementine at all?

So here we go.  ‘Inclement’ is the negative form of ‘clement’, which means mild or temperate.  I only ever really hear ‘inclement’ used to describe the weather – it’s just a posh way of saying ‘bad weather’.   The in- part is a prefix used to indicate a negative form (inadvisable; indistinguishable), although the prefix un- is more common in English.

The earliest use of ‘inclement’ the OED records is from 1621, although there’s a notable use from 1667 in Milton’s Paradise Lost: To shun Th’ inclement Seasons, Rain, Ice, Hail and Snow.

‘Clement’ is quite a bit older than its negative form, and derives directly from the Latin ‘clēment-em’ (mild, gentle, placid)Modern French has a direct cognate in clément, which means exactly the same as the English.

The first appearance of clement in English is from 1483, and appears in a religious context, describing a person’s behaviour towards others; you can see this sense in this translation of Boethius from 1535:   Ane victour suld be Curtas and clement, but crudelitie.

It’s not until the early 17th century that ‘clement’ is applied to the weather: “So clement and benign a soyl, that Roses grow there thrice a year” (1622) – although these days we scarcely use ‘clement’ (the OED lists the usage as ‘rare), only ‘inclement’, when talking about the weather – which is perhaps more indicative of the weather than our use of language!

So what’s the relationship between this word that means ‘mild’ and a small, sweet citrus fruit?

I’m still not entirely sure – but it seems like ‘clementine’ is a pretty modern word.  It’s first recorded in English as late as 1926 – “The Clementine orange (a cross between tangerine and sour orange) is very severely affected [by citrus rust]”, although the OED cites a French usage from 1902.

Where the OED goes quiet, the Online Dictionary of Etymology proves more helpful.  It describes the clementine as an accidental hybrid – “a cross between tangerine and sour orange” – and perhaps not surprisingly, it was named after the man who discovered the hybrid, one Father Clement Rodier, who ran an orphanage in Algeria.

In a very roundabout way, there is then a connection between my ‘inclement weather’ driving people into the Tube and the clementine fruit.   The original sense of ‘clement’, which described a person’s behaviour as ‘gentle’, was used as a first name – and it just happened that a person called Clement discovered a hybrid fruit, which ended up being named after him.

Good thing he wasn’t called Rodney.


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