As the papal conclave proceeds in Vatican City, we turn to the word conclave, with its intriguing etymology:

late Middle English (denoting a private room): via French from Latin conclave ‘lockable room,’ from con- ‘with’ + clavis ‘key.’ (NOAD2)

In papal conclaves, the cardinals are locked inside the Sistine Chapel. From this practice, conclave has come to have the more general sense ‘a private meeting’ as well as the specific meaning ‘the assembly of cardinals for the election of a pope’.

(Other words with etymologies going back to Latin clavis include clavicle, autoclave, enclave, clavier, clavichord, and clef. A different story in each case.)

The sense of private in ‘a private meeting’ is fairly flexible: meetings of learned societies are often referred to as conclaves; in the case of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), journalists regularly use the word, as here:

Feasting at the Annual AAAS Conference: More to Chew on than Just Free Eats [by Bud Ward, 3/4/08]

Veteran participants in the annual conferences of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS, will tell you it’s just another word for that meeting.

Intrepid reporters, and hungry ones, can eat their way through the annual four-day programs and barely tap their shrinking per diems and disappearing travel expense budgets.

But the smorgasbord term applies also to the scope and abundance of story ideas, if not necessarily major scientific findings, flowing from the AAAS meetings. The February 2008 conclave in Boston was no exception, and the roughly 1,000 attendees sporting “Press” passes – some of them actual working journalists – dined on a rich sampling of both finger foods and nourishing take-home ideas.

AAAS meetings are (mostly) private in the sense that most events are open only to registered participants (though there are some free public events). But that’s still fairly far from the privacy of papal conclaves. And conclave is on its way to becoming merely a fancy synonym (connoting high seriousness) for meeting or gathering, as in the annual Science Conclaves sponsored by the Indian Institute of Information Technology Allahabad:

The purpose of these annual intellectual gatherings of Nobel Laureates and eminent national / international scientists is to provide a platform for free interaction to young students, teachers and researchers to interact with high-profile intelligentsia, show them the excitement of scientific research/investigation and motivate them to take up study of science as their careers, which has seen a significant decrease owing to other lucrative fields of study. (link)

We’re not all the way to truly open meetings, since participation in the Science Conclaves is by invitation. But with AAAS meetings and the IIT gatherings counting as conclaves, the way is open to using the word for, say, business meetings (since they’re by invitation). But a public lecture would still be over the line.


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