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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
an adjective implying dexterous activity of mind or body, and ability to meet emergencies with readiness and adroitness. The etymology and the early history of the word are obscure. The earliest instance quoted by the New English Dictionary is in the Bestiary of c. 1200 (An Old English Miscellany, ed. R. Morris, 1872, E.E.T.S. 49) - "On the clothed the neddre (adder) is cof (quick) and the devel diver on sinnes," i.e. quick to seize hold of; this would connect the word with a M. Eng. "sliver" or "clivre," a talon or claw (so H. Wedgwood, Diet. of Eng. Etym.). The ultimate original would be the root appearing in "claw," "cleave," "cling," "clip," &c., meaning to "stick to." This original sense probably survives in the frequent use of the word for nimble, dexterous, quick and skilful in the use of the hands, and so it is often applied to a horse, "clever at his fences." The word has also been connected with Q. Eng. gleaw, wise, which became in M. Eng. gleu, and is cognate with Scottish gleg, quick of eye. As to the use of the word, Sir Thomas Browne mentions it among "words of no general reception in English but of common use in Norfolk or peculiar to the East Angle countries" (Tract. viii. in Wilkins's ed. of Works, iv. 205). The earlier uses of the word seem to be confined to that of bodily dexterity. In this sense it took the place of a use of "deliver" as an adjective, meaning nimble, literally "free in action," a use taken from Fr. delivre (Late Lat. deliberare, to set free), cf. Chaucer, Prologue to Cant. Tales, 84, "wonderly deliver and grete of strength," and Romaunt of the Rose, 831, "Deliver, smert and of gret might." It has been suggested that "clever" is a corruption of "deliver" in this sense, but this is not now accepted. The earliest use of the word for mental quickness and ability in the New English Dictionary is from Addison in No. 22 of The Freeholder (1716).
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Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Clever'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/bri/c/clever.html. 1910.