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CLERK [1] (from A.S. cleric or clerc, which, with the similar Fr. form, comes direct from the Lat. clericus), in its original sense, as used in the civil law, one who had taken religious orders of whatever rank, whether "holy" or "minor." The word clericus is derived from the Greek , "of or pertaining to an inheritance," from , "lot," "allotment," "estate," "inheritance"; but the authorities are by no means agreed in which sense the root is connected with the sense of the derivative, some conceiving that the original idea was that the clergy received the service of God as their lot or portion; others that they were the portion of the Lord; while others again, with more reason as Bingham (Orig. Eccl. lib. i. cap. 5, sec. 9) seems to think, maintain that the word has reference to the choosing by lot, as in early ages was the case of those to whom public offices were to be entrusted.

In the primitive times of the church the term canon was used as synonymous with clerk, from the names of all the persons in the service of any church having been inscribed on a roll, or , whence they were termed canonici, a fact which shows that the practice of the Roman Catholic Church of including all persons of all ranks in the service of the church, ordained or unordained, in the term clerks, or clergy, is at least in conformity with the practice of antiquity. Thus, too, in English ecclesiastical law, a clerk was any one who had been admitted to the ecclesiastical state, and had taken the tonsure. The application of the word in this sense gradually underwent a change, and "clerk" became more especially the term applied to those in minor orders, while those in "major" or "holy" orders were designated in full "clerks in holy orders," which in English law still remains the designation of clergymen of the Established Church. After the Reformation the word "clerk" was still further extended to include laymen who performed duties in cathedrals, churches, etc., e.g. the choirmen, who were designated "lay clerks." Of these lay clerks or choirmen there was always one whose duty it was to be constantly present at every service, to sing or say the responses as the leader or representative of the laity. His duties were gradually enlarged to include the care of the church and precincts, assisting at baptisms, marriages, etc., and he thus became the precursor of the later parish clerk. In a somewhat similar sense we find bible clerk, singing clerk, etc. The use of the word "clerk" to denote a person ordained to the ministry is now mainly legal or formal.

The word also developed in a different sense. In medieval times the pursuit of letters and general learning was confined to the clergy, and as they were practically the only persons who could read and write all notarial and secretarial work was discharged by them, so that in time the word was used with special reference to secretaries, notaries, accountants or even mere penmen. This special meaning developed into what is now one of the ordinary senses of the word. We find, accordingly, the term applied to those officers of courts, corporations, etc., whose duty consists in keeping records, correspondence, and generally managing business, as clerk of the market, clerk of the petty bag, clerk of the peace, town clerk, etc. Similarly, a clerk also means any one who in a subordinate position is engaged in writing, making entries, ordinary correspondence, or similar "clerkly" work. In the United States the word means also an assistant in a commercial house, a retail salesman.

[1] The accepted English pronunciation, "clark," is found in southern English as early as the 15th century; but northern dialects still preserve the e sound ("clurk"), which is the common pronunciation in America.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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