If you’re looking for some clarity, I’m afraid I can’t help you see clear to that this time. Today’s word is a dirty, dirty word, and a rude thing to say. Oh, it’s not crude language; your churchgoing grandmother could say it, and might if she’s Scottish or northern English. But it has a certain unpleasant clatter to it, and while it’s as plain as day, it’s also as clear as mud – and as filthy, too. Clarty means ‘dirty, muddy, sticky, nasty’; it has a related noun clart meaning ‘mud, filth’ and a related verb clart meaning ‘smear with dirty, make dirty’. If you’re in Scotland, you may well hear the word used today, but if you do, it will not be with a positive tone (see this article in The Scotsman). It has been in the language for most of a millennium, but its origins are – sorry – unclear.
If language is a window on the world, it takes only an iota to make the difference between gleam and grime, between purty and dirty, between clarity and clarty. The merest misplacement can make a mess. I’m reminded of a joke – a meta-joke, because it’s a joke about someone telling a joke. A fellow hears the joke “Did you hear the one about the dirty window? Never mind, you wouldn’t see through it.” He thinks it’s funny, so next time he’s at a church social, he tells a few people present, “Did you hear the one about the window you couldn’t see through? Never mind, it’s too dirty for you.”
Which makes me think about the time I cleaned the shower door in our last apartment. We had moved in perhaps a year earlier. I finally got around to using some CLR on the shower door and cleaning all the accumulated minerals off it. Aina came home, looked at it, said “It’s clear!” and, after the briefest of moments, pulled a face of horror and disgust: “Ewwwwwww.” She had thought it was frosted glass. She just realized she had been showering all year next to an incredibly filthy piece of glass (well, minerals, but you know). Its lack of clarity was because it was clarty. And that, ladies and gents, is how you get from pane to pain.