Betsy Wade was ecstatic. “At last!” she exclaimed. “For the next few weeks people will be using the word conclave correctly!”
Wade knows whereof she speaks. The first woman to be a copy desk chief at The New York Times (and the lead plaintiff in a landmark women’s suit against The Times), she understands these things. A true conclave happens only when there’s a vacancy in the Vatican.
In its purest meaning, a “conclave,” as The Oxford English Dictionary says, is “the place in which the Cardinals meet in private for the election of a Pope,” or “the assembly of cardinals met for the election of a Pope.” (The difference in capitalization of “Cardinals” is the OED’s.) That usage first appeared in 1393, the OED says. “Conclave” is also what a gathering of cardinals is called, the way a group of geese is a “gaggle” and a bunch of fish swimming together is a “school.”
Within a couple of hundred years, though, “conclave” came to also mean “any private or close assembly, esp. of an ecclesiastical character,” the OED says. The religion aspect is still there, but bishops and even lay people could be part of a “conclave,” too, if they were deciding matters of high import.
Both of those meanings remained true to the root of the word “conclave,” which Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary gives as “Middle French, from Medieval Latin, from Latin, room or apartment that can be locked up.” It comes from the word “clavis,” or “key.” Originally a “conclave” was a locked, secret chamber. Because the cardinals used to be locked in a room until they elected a new pope—an incentive to decide quickly—the word transferred to the group and its purpose.
The OED also notes that “This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1891).” That may explain why the way “conclave” is mostly used these days is missing. As M-W says, “conclave” also means “a meeting especially of a group with shared or specialized interests (as a fraternal society)” and “any authoritative group exercising wide discretionary powers.”
News organizations have used “conclave” to describe meetings of all types, including a weekend of college reunion festivities and a gathering of crossword buffs. To be fair, Webster’s New World College Dictionary says a “conclave” can be “any large conference or convention,” and The American Heritage Dictionary says it can be “a meeting of family members or associates.”
But we have other words for those things, like “convention,” “conference,” “gathering,” or “meeting.” “Conclave” hints at a secret or private nature to the event (or the people gathering). The Associated Press Stylebook even says so in its entry on “conclave”: “A private or secret meeting. In the Roman Catholic Church it describes the private meeting of cardinals to elect a pope.”
This is one term to be less catholic about. Let’s not keep the secret nature of a “conclave” a secret.