Monday, August 20, 2007

Don't Meddle With Mettle

Chrysler's boss shows his metal at car rally August 17, 2007

At first, I thought that the headline writer had made a mistake. “Surely,” I thought, “he meant mettle.” Then it dawned on me that he was perpetrating a pun. In the story, Bob Nardelli is showing off his car--a hunk of metal.

But readers who don’t know the difference between metal and mettle won’t get the wordplay.

Metal, in the poetic description provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “hard, shiny, malleable material of the kind originally represented by gold, silver, copper, etc., esp. as used in the manufacture of objects, artefacts, and utensils.” It comes from a Greek word meaning a mine or quarry, and by extension, the stuff that comes from a mine.

Mettle is a person’s strength of character, disposition, courage, and temperament. The cliché is to show one’s mettle, and it means to reveal your inner self during adversity.

But it turns out that the two words are related in history. In Anglo-Norman, metal took on the meaning of material or substance. It was then applied metaphorically to a person’s substance or nature. In fact, the spelling metal was used both for the malleable stuff and for the Right Stuff.

The OED points out the interchangeability in two versions of Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV, II.v.
• 1598 Quarto Edition: “A Corinthian, a lad of metall.”
• 1623 Folio Edition: “A Corinthian, a lad of mettle.”

Don’t meddle with a lad with mettle; he deserves a metal medal.

SIDEBAR: A cat with mettle

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