Recent reports are revealing that Russian meddling in the 2016 US election was more extensive than initially understood. As investigators continue probing the interference, let’s meddle with the etymology of meddle.
Stuck in the meddle
To meddle is to get in the middle of things, but for all their similarities, meddle and middle come from very different roots. Middle is from the Old English middel, in turn from a Germanic base distantly related to the Latin root of words like mean, median, mediate, mediocre, and medium.
Meddle, meanwhile, comes from the Anglo-Norman French medler, “to mix or mingle,” from the Old French mesler, which ultimately developed out of the Latin miscere, meaning and source of “mix.” So, what is that d doing meddling with all these s’s? As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, the Old French s in this position, pronounced like a z, evolved into a th sound, written as d.
Muddling things up
The Old French mesler also gives us English the mell in pell-mell, whose rush and confusion suggests a mixup; a melange, a mixture; melee, whose crowding and fighting is a metaphorical mixing; and medley, which originally meant “hand-to-hand fighting.”
As for meddle, English first used it for different people “mixing or mingling” together in the early 1300s. Later that century, meddle extended to “set to work” or “busy oneself”—and if you do that too much, you’re interfering, hence the modern meddling. And someone so given to meddling is meddlesome, attested in 1615.
For some speakers, though, Russian meddling has an even naughtier side: Since the late 1300s, meddle could also mean “to have sex with,” a usage that survives in some dialects of the American South.