Don’t miss the ultimate foodie event, The Baltimore Sun's Secret Supper

In a word: clerisy

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your working vocabulary. This week's word:


We harbor oddly ambivalent attitudes about learning, about our intelligentsia. Anyone holding a Ph.D. or, even more awesomely, a doctorate in education, can (and does) expect to be addressed as "Doctor" in a tone of hushed reverence. But we also have an abundance of people like the late George Wallace inveighing against "pointy-headed intellectuals." There's even a stock phrase adopted from the French, the trahison des clercs, literally, "treason of the clerks," or "betrayal of the intellectuals," to express suspicion of the entire class of the learned.

Apart from intelligentsia or literati, we have a handy word for this class, the clerisy (pronounced KLER-uh-see), the learned class, the academic class. English takes it directly from the German klerisei, "clergy." That in turn derives ultimately from the Latin clericus, "priest."

In the Middle Ages, of course, the clergy were the educated class, which explains the conflation of priest and learned person. Since attitudes about priests have also been ambivalent, we can understand that clerisy does not always suggest admiration. Merriam-Webster, in fact, notes that the German word is "often used contemptuously."

It's a mark of the flexibility of language that we can use the same word, depending on context or tone of voice, to indicate a tug of the forelock or a sneer.

Example: David Brooks, speaking of former Vice President Dick Cheney on Meet the Press in 2011: "But I think part of the problem he had was that he thinks he's part of the national security clerisy. 'We--we're serious people, we know what's going on.  We don't have to worry about all those little people.  They don't, they don't--the rest of the country, they don't understand what we understand.' "


Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad