A cleric is a member of the clergy; a religious leader. How did the term clerical come to mean recordkeeping in an office, unrelated to religious activity?

  • The near exclusive role of religious institutions as keepers of the record must have made separation of church and state a formidable proposition. I'm casually disregarding the social implications of such ideas. Thank you for the clear answers.
    – ndemarco
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 14:24

2 Answers 2


As https://www.etymonline.com/word/clerk puts it:

Modern bureaucratic usage is a reminder of the time when clergy alone could read and write and were employed as scribes and account-keepers by secular authorities. In late Old English the word also can mean "king's scribe; keeper of accounts." And by c. 1200 clerk took on a secondary sense in Middle English (as the cognate word did in Old French) of "man of letters, anyone who can read or write."

Since reading and writing was mostly limited to the members of the clergy, the term clerk got the second meaning of "someone who can read or write". And the adjective clerical can be used to describe the work of a scribe or an office worker.

  • 2
    The once-rare status as "literate person" denoted by clerk came with important legal immunities. Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 4:42

OED has the full story about clerk (from which is derived clerical):

2.a. Before the Reformation, sometimes applied esp. to members of the five ‘minor orders’ as distinct from the higher or ‘holy orders’.

2.b. Hence, since the Reformation, applied to laymen who perform such of these offices as are retained in cathedrals, churches, or chapels. In the Prayer-book of 1549 the clerks were the choir men; in later times, the clerk of a parish was an official appointed to assist the incumbent of the parish in various duties connected with the church and its services (see parish clerk n.).

The parish clerk performed clerical duties which weren't clergy duties. But the work is not unrelated to religious activity.

There's also

4.a. A man (or woman) of book learning, one able to read and write; a scholar. (Now a historical archaism.)

6.a. The officer who has charge of the records, correspondence, and accounts of any department, court, corporation, or society, and superintends the general conduct of its business; as Clerk of the Kitchen, Clerk to the Schoolboard, etc.

6.b. One employed in a subordinate position in a public or private office, shop, warehouse, etc., to make written entries, keep accounts, make fair copies of documents, do the mechanical work of correspondence and similar ‘clerkly’ work.

OED lists its senses in historical order. The progression is fairly straightforward, although extremely compressed and 2b to 6b are all roughly contemporaneous in the sixteenth century. Sense 2a is attested in Old English [pre-Norman].

  • Re: OED 2b - Adult choir members in cathedrals are still called 'lay clerks'. Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 17:13
  • @KateBunting Indeed. But I didn't consider that relevant to office work, and there's already quite a lot here for fair dealing. (Mind you, when I progressed from singer to leader, it did come with more clerical work!)
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 18:08
  • There's also the new meaning of clerk/cleric, deriving from D&D and other role-playing games. The senses are related, but muddled. Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 20:56

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