Dismantling “mantle”

I’ve been thinking about the word mantle recently. During the latest Republican debate, Donald Trump trumpeted that he “will gladly accept the mantle of anger” about the problems, at least in his and his supporters’ view, that the US faces.

Meanwhile, the Iran deal went into effect after “the country followed through with its promises to dismantle large sections of its nuclear program,” the New York Times reported.

What’s going on with this word mantle?

mantle.jpg
Anger? Nuclear power? This mantel, related to mantle, is much cozier. Doodle by me.

Mantle

Like clothes strewn across a teenager’s bedroom, mantle is all over the place in English. It’s a symbol of authority. It’s a mostly solid layer of super-hot rock constituting over 80% of Earth’s volume. It’s a poetic way to describe blushing. If you switch around some letters, it’s even that piece of wood over your fireplace where you display various knickknacks, objets d’art, and pictures of your family, if you remember to put them back up whenever they come over.

But at its root and in its earliest meanings, a mantle is a cloak. English donned mantle twice in its history. Very early on, English – like a younger brother wanting to look cool in his older sibling’s clothes, and probably without asking first – borrowed the word from Latin. In Old English, mantle was mentel, among other forms, and referred to a “loose, sleeveless cloak,” as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) glosses it.

Later, after the Normans conquered England, English added the word once again to its wardrobe from the French mantel. As we know well on this blog, the French also derives from the Latin.

And the Latin etymon? Mantellum. It also means “cloak.”

Mantle pieces 

Some have argued mantellum is connected to some similar Latin words: mantēlium and mantēle, with various meanings of “napkin,” “hand-towel,” and “table-cloth.” Others have argued that the word is actually a diminutive form of some mantus or mantum. Eric Partridge proposes a Basque source, such as mantar, a “chemise” or “plaster.” (We saw Basque once before in an old post on bay, as in the body of water.) Wiktionary, meanwhile, posits a Gaulish root meaning “trodden road.” I’m not quite sure about the connecting sense with that one.

So, our knowledge of mantle‘s origin isn’t quite snug. But most dictionaries do suggest a possible Celtic origin. Unifying all the various words we’ve seen is some sense of a covering. Originally, a cloth-y fabrication, apparently.

Metaphor fashioned quite a bit out of this “cloak.” The geological mantle cloaks the Earth’s core, a usage dated to the 1930s. A blush mantles one’s cheek. Walter Skeat helps us out for a fireplace’s mantel, a variant of mantle: “In old fire-places, the mantel slopes forward like a hood, to catch the smoke.” The earlier form was mantiltre in Middle English, a manteltree, the covering piece made from timber. So, a mantel once cloaked the fireplace, the feature a mere ornamental vestige today.

As for Trump’s mantle of anger? (I would think that that would be more like a tight-fitting Kevlar vest.)  The OED dates this metaphor for an important duty or position, particularly as assumed from a predecessor, to the 1650s: It was “originally used with allusion to the passing of Elijah’s mantle to Elisha, understood allegorically.” Trump: real estate mogul, Republican frontrunner, prophet? Oh my.

And dismantle? This word derives from the French desmanteller, “to take the cloak off [of somebody].” (We saw similar sartorial assaults with the etymology of robe.) It was used, however, as a military metaphor, “to raze” or “tear down [fortress walls],” just as it did when it first appeared in English in the late 1500s. This desmanteller joins des- (“away”) and manteler (“to cloak”).

The Romance languages, we think, shortened mantellum into some words you might know well. French hemmed it to manteau, a “cloak,” which appears in portmanteau, a kind of “traveling bag with two compartments.”  To manteau French adds porte, a command “to carry,” originally issued to a court official to transport a prince’s mantle. Now, thanks to Lewis Carroll, a portmanteau word names a blend, like brunch, fusing “breakfast” and “lunch.” Spanish, meanwhile, tailored it to manta, a kind of “blanket,” which might well describe a manta ray.

Like the cloak it originally names, mantle is quite the versatile piece in the closet, lexically speaking.

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15 thoughts on “Dismantling “mantle”

  1. If there is a possible Celtic origin I don’t follow the semantic leap from a Proto-Celtic *mantalo- ‘pounded earth, road’ to an article of clothing ‘cloak’? Welsh has the old word ‘mant’ (“chin” modern Welsh: gên) with other meanings of ‘jaw’, ‘mouth’, ‘lip’, ‘mandible’, ‘helmet’ which the dictionary suggests is from a Proto-Celtic root *man- from PIE root *men- ‘jut, project’ related to Latin: mentum ‘chin’, prōmineō ‘I project’.

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    1. I agree. My sources would suggest a Celtic origin, but only Wiktionary proposed a specific, if hypothetical, root. I guess some notion of “flat” and “spread out”? I would guess that the Celtic root would still probably refer to some sort of cloth technology.

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  2. Wow. Just found your site and love it. I never thought about the word Mantle to be quite honest. I loved your your breakdown of the history. As a linguistics super nerd, i have become a fan. Cant wait for the upcoming posts. Greetings from Germany.
    -Kevin from teflgermany.com

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