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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bodies of water (part I of II)

Last post, ocean took us into its cosmological waters. In this two-part post, we cast our etymological line out in some other bodies of water—and reel in armpits, bosoms, crayfish soup, rheumatism, rifles, sponges, and vaults, among other sundries. Sorry, no boots or tires. Hey, we keep our lakes clean up here in the Twin Cities. 

Fast Mash

  • Bay enters English ~1400s from Old French and Late Latin, origin ultimately unknown and possibly Iberian in origin
  • Creek comes from Old Norse kriki (corner, nook)
  • Gulf originally meant bosom in Ancient Greek, from Proto-Indo European *kwelp- (to arch, vault)
  • Lake was borrowed via French from Latin lacus/lacuna (pool, ditch) but influenced by its Old English cognate lacu (stream)

bay

As with so many words, bay‘s origin is unknown. But I love this fact. Words, for as much as I desire otherwise, seldom have Ur-meanings that conjure a magical past, a proto experience, a more primal understanding of the word. The signified’s sign is arbitrary, although we might take exception for linguistic imitation of the natural world. Nevertheless, the variation of human language is kaleidoscopically wonderful. And it keeps me busy at the Mashed Radish.

As an inlet of the seabay enters English ca. 1400, via Old French baie, from Late Latin baia. The best hypothesis is that the term is Pre-Roman and Iberian in origin (bahia?), potentially from the isolate Basque. Typically, languages have genealogies (e.g., French as daughter language of Latin, Latin as daughter language of an older Indo-European form) that linguists can map out. Not so for Basque; it stands on its own.

Baja means lower in Spanish and is unrelated. And, in spite of the learned efforts of John Thomson in his 1826 Etymons of English Words, so seem to be bow and bight, with origins in senses of bending and bosom, emphasizing curvature. This principle, of denoting geographic features as bends and bosoms, is spot on, though, just with different words. See gulf. Skeat also attempted an origin in the past participle of Latin’s badare (to gape), but this seems quite unlikely.

Incidentally, bisque (originally a crayfish soup) is said to be an altered form of Biscay—as in the Bay of—meaning low ridge or prominence in Basque Country.

creek

A staple of any American English dialectical survey, creek, and its widespread variant pronounced as crick, took the form creke in the mid-15c., from kryk, used in place names as early as the 12c. The term seems to be from the Old Norse kriki, meaning corner or nook. The language even had handakriki, meaning armpit. The sense of bending and turning may point to an ultimately origin in crook. The French crique also seems to owe its origin to a Scandinavian term, and it probably influenced that of creek. The Online Etymology Dictionary offers some nice insights on its exploratory past.

Extended to “inlet or short arm of a river” by 1570s, which probably led to use for “small stream, brook” in American English (1620s). Also used there and in Canada, Australia, New Zealand for “branch of a main river,” possibly from explorers moving up main rivers and seeing and noting mouths of tributaries without knowing they often were extensive rivers of their own. Slang phrase up the creek “in trouble,” often especially “pregnant,” first recorded 1941, perhaps originally armed forces slang for “lost while on patrol.” 

gulf

To me, gulf is a near “perfect” etymology. For many of us, it lives much of its life on a map or as a simple geographic term, taken for granted, specific yet simple, not necessarily an everyday word in use (unless you live on one) but everyday in its character, invisible by its own there-ness. But its origin displays a classic example of Grimm’s law, terrific metaphor, and surprising original and related meanings.

Gulf in its geographic sense was around in English in the 1400s, and later that century took its meaning of profound depth, inspiring engulf by the 1550s. Interestingly, engulf seems to hang around mostly in the phrase engulfed in flames. Anyways, golf meant gulf or whirlpool in Old French, taken from Late Latin colfos or colphos, itself lifted from the Greek kolpos, meaning bay or gulf.

The Greek is rooted in the Proto-Indo European *kwelp-, which denotes to arch or vault. A familiar cognate? English’s own overwhelm, evolved from hwealf and a-hwielfanWhelm exists, though archaic and poetic. Underwhelm was coined to riff on overwhelm—in 1953. That’s a fantastically recent and superb coinage, if I may say so myself.

So, kolpos meant gulf in Greek. But it didn’t always mean that. Earlier, it referred to the trough of waves, the fold in a garment, and, get this, bosom. The link is… curvaceousness. This lends a fleshy, pneumatic (and shall I say bathukolpian, or deep-bosomed) literalness to: When Aunt Ulga came in to hug me, she engulfed me in her bosom.  Latin’s sinus (yep, that kind of sinus) evolved in the same way, and might give you a whole new reason to get a little distracted the next time you drive along a sinuous road. German’s Busen can likewise mean gulf, bosom, and cleavage. 

Guess this puts a whole new spin on bodies of water.

And then we have Grimm’s Law. Jacob Grimm, one of the famed Brothers Grimm, was a renowned philologist and figure in 19th-c. Germany. He is perhaps best known as discovering the eponymous Grimm’s Law, which brought a whole new level of rigor to the pursuit of linguistics. Its influence to the field really cannot be underestimated.

The law demonstrates systematic sound shifts in Indo-European languages, illustrating genetic relationships between Indo-European languages. More specifically, a regular change between Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Germanic consonants in what is called a chain shift (props to Wikipedia for the chain):

bʰ → b → p → ɸ

dʰ → d → t → θ

gʰ → g → k → x

gʷʰ → gʷ → kʷ → xʷ

The superscript signifies aspiration (breath), the labialization (lip rounding). Father is a great example. In Latin, father is pater. Let’s follow the chain. According to the law, p becomes an f sound and t becomes a th sound. The examples are really astonishing, explaining why canine and hound are related, or gelato and cold.

Or—and please remember that I am only speculating here, as I do not pretend to be a historical linguist or phonologist/phonetician, only an armchair etymologist—kolpos and gulf. We see a straightforward change from p to f.

What about the and g? Grimm’s law should predict that the would change to (which sounds like the ch in German’s Ich). Indeed, there are a great many of irregularities; the stuff of language is never airtight. Something called Verner’s Law does explain some exceptions, although I don’t quite know if it properly applies here. So, any of my better linguistically educated or curious readers, I’d love to know your take on this. Could there be intermediary forms, a problem of historical orthography, some other natural accident of phonology?

lake

Loch, lough, laguna, lagoon—English may call it lake, but I call it everywhere. I moved to Minneapolis about 6 months ago. I knew they called Minnesota the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but I didn’t know they really meant it.

Etymologically, in lake it seems two streams converge. In the early 12th-c., English picked up Old French’s lac or what I speculate is its Norman form, lack, referring generically to a body of water. The French evolved from the Latin, lacus (vattank, pool, reservoir, lake), related to lacuna (hole, pit, pond, pool). This latter term has its own place in English, denoting a gap or unfilled space. And the Latin leads back to the Proto-Indo European *laku-. I find it interesting that the primary sense of lacus is of a space (if not a manmade space) that can be filled with water, as opposed to of a lake as a natural geographic feature. However the Ancient Romans conceived of lakes, their word inspired the poetical lacustrine, which John Ashbery uses in his masterful poem These Lacustrine Cities.

This same root, *laku-, has its Germanic branch, giving Old English lacu for streamLeak is related. Good thing we didn’t call them the Los Angeles Leakers. I should say Minneapolis Leakers, given where the team originally called home many decades ago.

Lacu became lake (the pronounced as a short vowel or schwa) in Middle English, and variously signified stream, river gully, ditch, and marsh, and even grave and pit of hell. I suppose these latter two clarify the infernal image of the “lake of fire” in the Book of Revelations. And the original Meat Puppets’ track (and the perhaps better known Nirvana Unplugged in New York cover) of the same name. (I came of age in the ’90s, during which Nirvana’s Unplugged was its own kind of bible, and I guess I’m biased to its more indie feel. I also now appreciate what is probably just the rhyme-convenient Duluth shout-out, if one would ever call it that.)

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