mantle, mantel

Dear word sommelier: Is it mantel or mantle of responsibility? Are mantle and mantel two words or one, anyway?

The answer to your second question is “Yes.”

Mantle and mantel are now treated as two words – indeed, Bryan Garner, in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, calls them “very different”. I think that’s a bit much; the words themselves are identical in pronunciation and have only the merest variation in spelling, akin to the difference between metre and meter. And originally mantle was just a variant spelling of mantel – which was a word for a cloak or overcoat. It just happens that a structure around a fireplace is similar enough to a cloak to borrow the name, but different enough for the name to diverge… just slightly. And the result is a mantel block. I mean mental block.

The structure around a fireplace first gained the name mantle – or mantel; the spelling was not differentiated then – in the 1500s. It’s also called a mantelpiece, and the projecting shelf above the fireplace, which is so often now called just the mantel, is also known as the mantel shelf. (Here’s a tie-in to yesterday’s tasting of mondegreen: in “Don’t Pass Me By,” by the Beatles, I used to hear “I hear the clock a-ticking on the mantel shelf” as “…on the magic shelf.”)

The word comes originally from Latin mantellum “cloak” by way of French (its modern French cognate is manteau). It had entered English by the Old English period (back when years still had only three digits); its first meaning was “loose sleevless cloak”, which, as it happens, is what it means now too (I find the shapes of m and n somewhat reminiscent, and the warmth of their sound suggestive, but, then, I’m looking for it).

From that it has gained a number of extended and metaphorical uses. For instance, since a position of authority or responsibility is commonly conceptualized as something one puts on, something that covers one, it is often seen as a mantel. Oops, that’s mantle now, as in mantle of responsibility. The spelling shifted starting in the 1700s, presumably by analogy with other words spelled with le (crumble, ramble, prattle, tattle, disgruntle, little, bottle, and so on). But the distinction is not universally preserved, and some dictionaries recognize mantle as an alternative spelling for mantel.

So, when we dismantle these two “very different” words, we see that they are really the same word, with one part reversed; and when we uncloak them (perhaps take off the magic cloak?), we discover they are long-separated twins, or maybe even just different personalities of the same word. One diverged in sense, the other in form. (It’s sort of like the letters u and v – originally there was a vowel, written v; it came to have a consonant version, and for some time they were both written as v or as the variant shape u; finally the one took the new form u and the other took the new sound /v/.) Oh, and yes, dismantle is dis plus mantle; first it meant “uncloak”, and later, from that, “take apart”.

That’s a fun thought to have if you’re dismantling a mantel, taking the shelf apart piece by piece – or the mantelpiece apart shelf by shelf. Why would you do that? Perhaps because it was your responsibility. Or maybe you just need to replace it with a more ornamental one, one with more sentimental value, perhaps suited for display of a cheese board (Emmental?), perhaps to present a small instrument (fiddle? mandolin?) or a little bottle (a mickey mantel?).

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2 responses to “mantle, mantel

  1. My friend Alan Yoshioka has reminded me of another well-known mantle: the one between the crust and core of the earth. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the mantle that surrounds a blast furnace (which is still spelled mantle in spite of being like a mantel), except of course it’s liquid, which is an important fact for plate tectonics – Platonic or otherwise.

  2. Pingback: sauromorph | Sesquiotica

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