- A traditional social unit in the Scottish Highlands, consisting of a number of families claiming a common ancestor and following the same hereditary chieftain.
- A division of a tribe tracing descent from a common ancestor.
- A large group of relatives, friends, or associates.
Origin of clan
Middle English from
Scottish Gaelic clann family from
Old Irish cland offspring from
Latin planta plant, sprout
; see plat-
in Indo-European roots.Word History:
The word clan
is, from the etymological point of view, the same word as plant.
Such a statement may at first appear unlikely to English speakers, since the two words begin with very different consonants. But to the speakers of the Celtic language of Ireland in the 400s, known as Old Irish, c
sounded quite similar. When St. Patrick converted Ireland to Christianity in the 5th century, the Old Irish language had no consonant p.
After their conversion, the Irish began to borrow many words from Latin, and when the speakers of early Old Irish tried to pronounce the sound p
in Latin words, the best they could manage was a (kw) or (k) sound, spelled c
in Old Irish. For instance, the Latin words purpura,
“purple,” and Pascha,
“Easter,” were borrowed as corcur
(Later, as their language continued to develop and change, the Irish learned to cope with p,
and Modern Irish has many words containing this consonant.) The early Irish also borrowed the Latin word planta
meaning “sprout” or “sprig,”—also the source of the English word plant
—and pronounced it cland.
In Old Irish, cland
was used to mean not only “offshoot of a plant” but also “offspring,” “family,” and “clan.” The word cland
was carried to the area that is now Scotland when speakers of Old Irish gained power in the region in the late 400s. The form of Old Irish spoken in Scotland eventually developed into the language now known as Scottish Gaelic.
In Scottish Gaelic, cland
developed the form clann,
and it was from Scottish Gaelic that the word clan
entered English in the 15th century, at first with reference to the clans of the Scottish Highlands.