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.

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As noted in my last post on deal, the agreement the US, the UK, France, Germany, China, and Russia reached with Iran to limits Iran’s nuclear program took two years of intense negotiations. Certainly, the deal did not come together easily, fittingly enough for the etymology of negotiation.

Sword, aside. “Negotiation.” Doodle by me.


English has been negotiating negotiation since the early 1500s, adopting the word directly – or lazily, shall we say – from the French négociation, “business.” Early on, a negotiation named a “business transaction,” referring to political agreements by the middle of the century. By the end of the century, the verb form is recorded, apparently a back-formation of the noun. Today, we might also negotiate a turn; this sense of skillful maneuvering appears by the late 19th century.

The French négociation made a quick transaction with Latin’s negōtium, also meaning “business.” If you are working, you are not relaxing. This is etymologically true for negōtium: the word joins neg– (“not”) and ōtium, “leisure, free time, relaxation.” So, a negotiation is literally “not leisure.”

Also featured in English words like negative, neg– comes from Latin’s nec, an adverb meaning “no” or “not.” Nec has deeper Proto-Indo-European roots: *ne-, as you might have guessed, also means “no” or “not.”

As for ōtium? The origin is unknown. That long o might sound a wide yawn of leisure, but then how do you explain ōdium, “hatred”? That long o now assumes a different character, no? Alas, some etymological efforts are otiose, or “fruitless,” in an earlier sense of this ōtium derivative now largely meaning “lazy.”

That said, ōtium could take on some more specific meanings in Latin, such as “retirement,” particularly from public affairs. Some of the earliest usages of the word are military, referring to breaks in the fighting, which, in the campaigns of antiquity, might have lasted long winters.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword. In the case of ōtium, it might be more leisurely. Enjoying ōtium, the Roman might have attended to his or her personal affairs, or perhaps engaged in the more refined pursuits of discourse – of art and philosophy, just as we saw in my post on the origin of school, which derives from the Ancient Greek for “leisure.”

Today, we consider diplomatic negotiations as alternatives to war. Etymologically, that was true was the otiations. Either way, great things happen when we put down our weapons.

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