What Is a Clyse?

From the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange (“a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts”), the intriguing question “What is a clyse?“:

I’ve been reading about the recent flooding in Somerset, and came across this:-

Floodwater is removed from many of the moors of the Somerset Levels by pumping stations […]. Consideration was given to replacing Dunball clyse with a pumping station in 2002…

This word doesn’t appear in any online dictionary I can find[…]

It was well answered by Janus Bahs Jacquet:

According to the OED definition, it is a local/regional word that means the same as clow. There is only one attestation quoted, from Somerset:

1882 Spectator 6 May 595. In the Reports of the Somerset Drainage Commissioners, the sluices and locks under their jurisdiction are called ‘Clyses’.

Obviously, clow is not exactly a common word, either, but it does seem to be more common than clyse, with about thirty or forty attestations […]

So a clyse would appear to be just a regional Somerset word for a sluice, basically.

It seems that clow is a false singular, based on an earlier form clowes/clowis. This was originally a singular itself (from Old English clūse, meaning ‘enclosure’, and related to ‘close’, both from the nominalised Latin passive participle clausa ‘closed’, from the verb claudō ‘to close’), but was reinterpreted as clow + plural –es around the 15th or 16th century.

Clyse is less certain: it appears to be from French écluse (same word as the Old English cluse), or perhaps it just represents a dialectical nonce rounding of the u in the Old English, yielding regional *clȳse as a variant of clūse.

Nice work! I love those obscure regional words, and it’s nice to see people getting knowledgeable answers to such questions. (Thanks for the link, Paul!)


  1. Janus Bahs Jacquet says

    You know you’ve arrived when you randomly Google yourself (c’mon, we all do it occasionally!) and find that you’ve been favourably mentioned—at length, even—on LanguageHat!

  2. The fact “clyse” is the form in Somerset makes me wonder if that vowel fronting isn’t similar to the vowel fronting of “u” in Welsh. I wonder if that is an areal effect. Does anyone know if “u” underwent the same change in Cornish?

  3. des von bladet says

    “Well, what isn’t a clyse, really?”

  4. My parents-in-law lived for many years on “The Clyce” in Highbridge (Somerset). Actually my husband’s great-uncle was the clyse-keeper and lived in the appropriate house. Then he ended up in another house just up the road. And indeed, later it was called “Clyce Road”. My father-in-law took the spelling into his own hands and always wrote “Clyse” because he was annoyed to see it being copied down as “Cycle”, which it wasn’t.
    We know a Catalan photographer named Manel Esclusa which seems to be the same word.
    The clyce or clyse in question is a floodgate on the River Brue.

  5. marie-lucie says

    [Catalan] Esclusa which seems to be the same word

    Most likely. French écluse was originally escluse. There are quite a few people named Delécluse or Delescluse, in keeping with the earlier custom of naming families according to the closest feature to their residence.

  6. “So a clyse would appear to be just a regional Somerset word for a sluice,”

    And the semantics of the two wrods are the same too. “Sluice” is a borrowing of the Dutch word for a lock (as on a watercourse.).

  7. Alon Lischinsky says

    [Catalan] Esclusa which seems to be the same word

    Esclusa is pure Castilian. The Catalan cognate would be *esclosa (cf. cloure ‘close’, with ppt clos, closa), but the actual term is the slightly-modified resclosa.

  8. I live in Somerset, in Wedmore, and in fact drove through Highbridge (see above) about eight hours ago, but can’t say I have heard about clyses before. However, I do know about rhynes, pronounced (and sometimes spelt) “reens” and also connected with water management: they’re the drainage ditches alongside fields on the Levels (and it’s a word also in use in Gloucestershire and South Wales).

  9. Another great regional word! The OED (Third Edition, updated June 2010) says:

    Etymology: Origin uncertain, as is the quality of the stem vowel. The forms rhine, rhyne perhaps simply show a spelling variant of rean n.; F. T. Elworthy W. Somerset Word-bk. (1886) 624 comments that ‘the wide open drains are all written rhine and pronounced ree·n’, and a similar comment occurs in G. E. Dartnell and E. H. Goddard Gloss. Words Wilts. (1893) 132, and in other later sources. However, this would not account for the forms royne, rhoyne. Perhaps a variant of rune n.1 (compare rune n.1 3), although this would also make the development of the vowel difficult to account for.

    For a suggestion that the forms in rh– reflect attempts to render aspirated r see Somerset & Dorset Notes & Queries 35 (2004) 376–7.

    As for rean, n., it’s “A deep furrow used for conducting drainage water from a field or other piece of ground, a water-furrow; (also) a furrow between ridges in a ploughed field; = rain n.2 2. Now Eng. regional and Welsh English.” And rain n.2 is “A strip of land, a ridge; a division between fields or between strips of land in a field” (“Now chiefly Eng. regional (north.).”) and is from “early Scandinavian (compare Old Icelandic rein strip of land, and other Scandinavian forms cited at rone n.1).” And rone n.1 is “A strip of uncultivated land which serves as, or follows the line of, a boundary; (hence also) a boundary, a border” and is “Cognate with [a whole bunch of Germanic words]; further etymology uncertain: perhaps < the same Indo-European base as Early Irish róen, ráen path (Irish raon).” One rabbit hole leads to another!

  10. If there had been rhynes and clyses in Somerset back in the time of Alfred the Great, the 9thC, who knows, English itself would likely be very different or maybe non-existent.

    But there weren’t, and the levels and moors (which are basically at or below sea level) were flooded marshlands. Alfred was able to hide in the wetlands from the marauding Danes, who had rampaged over all the other kingdoms of England until only a rump of Wessex remained – “most of the people they killed, except the King Alfred, and he with a little band made his way by wood and swamp, and after Easter he made a fort at Athelney in the marshes of Somerset, and from that fort kept fighting against the foe” says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He also allegedly burnt some peasant woman’s cakes, which the Chronicle does not say. He eventually brought an army together to win a key battle that defeated the Danes and cemented his control of Wessex, and in time his grandson Athelstan became the first king of a united England.

    Athelney was then a sort of low island and is now a low hill. As you can see from this Googlemap it is now (ie since late mediaeval times) surrounded by rhynes and the bigger drains. Had those been in place in the 9thC and had the levels accordingly been much drier and easier to move round, maybe the Danes would have caught and killed Alfred and gained control of all England before it was even “England”, and British political and linguistic history would have been very different (for instance, maybe the Normans would never have had good reason to come and stamp French in the language the way they did).

    I mentioned I live in Wedmore, which had a small role in all this. Alfred’s key victory over the Danes resulted in the Danish leader being converted to Christianity, with baptism at Aller near Athelney and, as Wikipedia puts it, “The ‘unbinding of the chrism’ took place with great ceremony eight days later at the royal estate at Wedmore in Somerset, after which Guthrum fulfilled his promise to leave Wessex”.

    It also says “There is no contemporary evidence that Alfred and Guthrum agreed upon a formal treaty at this time; the so-called Treaty of Wedmore is an invention of modern historians”, though the village signs nonetheless proclaim as you drive in that “In 878AD Alfred the King made Peace”.

  11. Perhaps that just means he had a girlfriend named Frith.

  12. David Marjanović says

    maybe the Normans would never have had good reason to come and stamp French in the language the way they did

    Naturally, the thought experiment has been done.

  13. The word clyse is shown in many places on old OS maps in and around Somerset levels, which is how I got on to this page!

  14. I’m glad you found it!

  15. Rhine (was Ryan) says

    Are any of the maps accessible online?

  16. The word clyse is shown in many places on old OS maps. I use Georeference from the National Library of Scotland.
    I find using the scale of 25″ =1 mile gives a richness of detail not found elsewhere.

  17. maps.nls.uk, without the www.
    It’s a great resource. I zoomed in at random and got to the Great Mell Fell, in the Lake District.

  18. (I fixed D’s URL.)


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