Merriam-Webster Word of the Day: Cleave

The Merriam-Webster Word of the Day is cleave. Read on for what it means, how it’s used, and more.

What It Means

Cleave means “to divide by or as if by a cutting blow” and “to separate into distinct parts and especially into groups having divergent views.”

// Having lived in the backcountry for years, she always makes sure to season her firewood so it will cleave easily under her ax.

CLEAVE in Context

“A pregnant male seahorse, a shape-shifting octopus and a jellyfish that can cleave off a piece of itself to make another have been wondrous sights to behold.” — photographer David Liittschwager, quoted by, 27 June 2022

Did You Know?

Cleave is part of an exclusive lexical club whose members are known as contronyms: words that have two meanings that contradict one another. In the case of cleave the two meanings belong to two etymologically distinct words. One cleave means “to adhere firmly and closely or loyally and unwaveringly,” as in “a family that cleaves to tradition”; it comes from the Old English verb clifian, meaning “to adhere.” The cleave with meanings relating to splitting and dividing comes from a different Old English word, clēofan, meaning “to split.” So although one might assume the two were once cleaved to one another only to become cloven over time, such is not the case!

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