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Listen to Professor Crystal

Clueless. I'm clueless. He's clueless. She's clueless. I mean, it's literally a clue less, that is, a clue in the sense of a piece of information or evidence used by police in solving a crime, that's where the word started years ago. And then it became a rather more general, meaning any facts about solving a problem - in phrases like, you know, 'clues about the past', 'have we got any clues about the past?' - in archaeology exploration, for example. And then earlier, there was a usage in idiom, you know, 'I haven't got a clue' - I've got no idea, I can't think what's happening. So it has this kind of informal sense, the word 'clue', which goes back quite a long time, meaning having no knowledge or understanding or ability.

It's a much milder word, clueless, than stupid. Stupid is quite strong - 'you're stupid' is stronger than 'you're clueless!' Clueless is more - you're absent minded, you're scatty, you could probably do it if you kept your mind on it - it's that kind of usage, isn't it? A much milder concept.

Usage spread when it became the name of a 1995 film, loosely based on Jane Austen's 'Emma' - it was called 'Clueless'. It's often intensified too - 'I'm totally clueless!' I heard somebody say the other day 'I'm totally clueless when it comes to grammar'. Well, I'm not totally clueless when it comes to grammar, but I have to say, I am totally clueless when it comes to cooking - I can do toast, and that's about it!


download transcriptTranscript (pdf - 32 K)

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