Reading Dave’s article on shrewd it hit me that I had never thought about the roots of clever. It turned out to be rather interesting. Clever is a ‘hands’ word, like adroit and dextrous, and OED says that an “ early example suggests relation to Middle English clivers ‘claws, talons, clutches’, in the sense ‘nimble of claws, sharp to seize’”. Interesting too is the history of the word.
Early history obscure: apparently in local and colloquial use long before it became a general literary word. A single example of cliver is known in Middle English, but the word has not been found again till the 16th cent., and it appears not to have been in general use till the close of the 17th, since Sir Thomas Browne specially mentions it as East Anglian, and Ray explains it among his dialect words. Outside English, Koolman gives East Frisian clüfer ( < clifer ), clever, skilful, alert, ready, nimble, and klöver , klever is used in same sense at Ribe Stift in Jutland (Molbech). The early example suggests relation to Middle English clivers ‘claws, talons, clutches’, in the sense ‘nimble of claws, sharp to seize’, and the 16–17th cent. examples (also of cleverly ) show it connected with the use of the hands, a notion which still remains in the general sense of adroit , dexterous , having ‘the brain in the hand’. Compare also cleverus adj. Clever appears to have come into general use about the time that deliver, formerly used in the sense ‘expert’, became obsolete, but there is no trace of any influence of the one upon the other. The sense-development has analogies with that of nimble, adroit, handy, handsome, nice, neat, clean.
Here’s the Sir Thomas Browne cite referenced above:
a1682 Sir T. Browne Tract viii, in Wks. (1835) IV. 205 Words of no general reception in England, but of common use in Norfolk, or peculiar to the East Angle countries; as bawnd, bunny..straft, clever, matchly.
And here’s the sense development:
I. Nimble-handed, adroit, dexterous.
†1. (?) Expert or nimble with the claws or hands, expert to seize. Obs.
c1220 Bestiary 221 in Old Eng. Misc. 7 On ðe cloðede ðe neddre is cof, and te deuel cliuer on sinnes; Ai ðe sinfule bisetten he wile. [i.e. The adder is quick (to dart) on the clothed, and the devil expert to lay hold on sins.]
2. Deft or nimble of hands, neat-handed, ‘handy’; adroit, dexterous, or skilful in the use of the limbs and in bodily movements generally.
1580–95 R. Southwell Let. in Poet. Wks. (1856) p. xlviii, Many are deep Lawyers, many very clever in feats of body.
1614 G. Meriton Christian Mans Assuring House 8 That surgion deserveth praise who lightly presseth the wound, and handleth it cleverlie with the tops of his fingers.
1674 J. Ray S. & E. Country Words (E.D.S.) , Clever.. dextrous.
a. Of persons: Possessing skill or talent; able to use hand or brain readily and effectively; dexterous, skilful; adroit. (The current sense.) clever Dick: see Dick n.1 1a.
1716 J. Addison Freeholder No. 22, The man has a cleaver pen it must be owned.
1735 Swift Clever Tom Clinch in Wks. II. 298 As clever Tom Clinch, while the Rabble was bawling, Rode stately through Holbourn, to die in his Calling.
Note that this is an 1889 entry and other instances of the word in Middle English may well have been found by now.