The media just can’t get enough of the word “conclave” this week. With one pope off into retirement there’s a top-level job opening. In the Catholic church the executive search committee consists of all the cardinals under the age of 80. They gather together in seclusion in what is typically called a papal conclave to select the new pope.
Since it’s a word you’re not going to hear every day, let’s take a couple minutes to have a look at the origins and several meanings of conclave.
The first use of conclave in English is cited by the OED to 1393. The context of this citation makes it clear that it’s being used in the modern sense. What is that modern sense? Pretty much the use you’ve been seeing the past couple of weeks: it’s a very specialized (almost over-specialized) word meaning “the place in which the Cardinals meet in private for the election of a Pope.”
Simple enough. As in all things related to the English language, however, there’s more to it. Conclave (the actual gathering place) soon came to also refer to those gathered — the Conclave of Cardinals or the papal conclave. This is the rhetorical device (or linguistic phenomenon) of metonymy, in which an object also becomes known by another object or abstract concept closely associated with it. In the same way that “Washington” is short hand for “the US Federal Government,” so “conclave” is also short for “the gathering of cardinals electing a pope.”
In historical context, this word (conclave) didn’t take very long to migrate into English (from Latin, through French). The Latin phrase (‘cum clave,’ “with a key”) appears to have been first coined (in the papal selection sense) in 1274 by Pope Gregory X. He was setting down new rules for papal elections, after his own took almost three full years. Henceforth, Gregory dictated, no more lollygagging around the Vatican, using up all the clean towels and drinking the good wine. When Gregory died and a new pope needed to be selected in 1276, they only got one run at the buffet and then it was down to business. Although they were rescinded (and reinstated) a couple of times over the next century, Gregory’s rules essentially set the pattern for all papal elections to this day, with the occasional small tweak (such as stripping the vote from cardinals over age 80). There had been several earlier papal elections that could be described as conclaves, but the one of 1276 was the first that fully deserves the label.
Conclave has seeped into the language with other related uses. It can also be used to describe any small or closed meeting, especially “of an ecclesiastical character” (OED). I would suggest from observation that outside of papal elections, the use of conclave to describe a closed meeting tends to be somewhat negative — the connotation is not exactly sinister, but it suggests that the deciding body is exclusive, elitist, and undemocratic. I’d suggest that use of the word conclave is typically slightly derogatory. So show caution when using it outside of the papal context.
Another definition of conclave, noted as obsolete (OED again), is that of any private room or chamber. This doesn’t appear to have ever seen widespread use and has definitely fallen out of favor the past few centuries, so avoid it (unless confusing your reader is the goal).
There are a number of other -clave words in English, the most common of which are enclave (a completely surrounded territory or group) and autoclave (the process of heat-treating or sterilizing something, or the device used to do this). Obscure -claves include inclave (an obscure term of heraldic design) and exclave (an enclave, as seen from the surrounding territory), which also share the same root (‘clavis,’ “key”) as conclave. Laticlave (a badge of high Roman senatorial rank) and augusticlave (a type of decoration, or a type of tunic, from ancient Rome) share the spelling but not the root: in this case, they’re derived from ‘clavus‘ (“purple stripe”), not ‘clavis‘ (“key,” or “bolt”). As a single syllable, you’ll also find a few definitions for clave in English. It’s an obscure synonym for a key (just as in Latin) as well as a knotty branch (taken from Latin ‘clava’), and also an obscure musical term for a set of percussive sticks (which can’t seem to decide on a derivations, since both clava and clavis seem to apply).
If the thought has crossed your mind that clavicle (collar bone) is also related, you’re correct. Clavicle (‘clavicula,’ “little key”) is also derived from clavis; it’s said that some thought it looked like a key or bolt (from ancient times, as you’ll be hard pressed to find modern mechanisms that closely resemble it).
There we are: in about 800 words, all you’ll ever need to know about the origin and use of conclave and several related terms. Now that you know all about it, have confidence using it. As for myself, I’m heading off into conclave with a bag of corn chips, a bottle of cheap wine, and twelve hours of The Three Stooges on DVD. I will not emerge until definitively deciding who is the greatest third Stooge, Curly or Shemp.
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Note: I attempted to follow standard capitalization style (as generally agreed upon by Chicago, AP, and GMAU) when using titles and descriptions (pope, cardinal, Catholic, etc.). This means, for example, that when referring to a pope or to the pope, lowercase is used, but when referring to a particular pope, say, Pope Formosus (he of the Cadaver Synod), uppercase is used; the Catholic church is capitalized to indicate that I’m referring to a specific organization, not simply using the universal or general descriptive sense (which would be lowercase catholic).
In at least one case, I’ve retained what seems to be non-standard capitalization because I’m quoting a source. If you think that I’ve gotten any of the capitalization wrong here, please let me know (and include your logic).