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?

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


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.

∫ r ∫


16 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’.

    Liked by 1 person

    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.


  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


  3. In German, Mantel means coat or covering; but they also use the word Jacke for coat too and reserve Mantel for other coverings. I have a friend from online who’s lived in Wiesbaden his entire life. He was speaking some English (actually by writing it in comments) before shutting down completely and will now speak only German, which isn’t helping me at all since I only ever knew German at a child’s level and never did know how to spell it. Only speak it. I tried to learn it when I was in school but it didn’t work out so well, although I at least learned the letters and how to pronounce most German words.
    He shut down bc of Trump-loving ‘alt-right’ supporters who had the utter gall to ridicule his “broken English.” Their leader speaks worse English than Gustav, considering it’s the only language Trump’s ever spoken and 90 percent of the time you can’t understand what he’s saying even if you WANT to listen to him and I’ve never had the slightest desire to know even small amounts of what he thinks much less be deluged daily with gallons of his poisonous thoughts.
    Now I’m stuck trying to learn more German as a person who can’t learn without the help of a native speaker, or my friend Andrew, who’s a lexicographer and for some reason speaks fluent German. But he returned to England and isn’t able to teach it to me. I’ll have to pay for a course but that’s not working out so well either. Unfortunately I don’t think I’m going to have a choice other than paying for an online course. We might go to Wiesbaden after Christmas & I think I should know more German than I do now. I didn’t even know what the German word for key (schlüssel) was before I met this guy. I still know more Spanish than German. I know the Spanish words for almost everything in a house. I know less than 10 percent of German words for household items.


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