Today we’re tackling two to four homophones. Why the qualification? To some English speakers, the words metal, medal, mettle, and meddle are all pronounced identically, or nearly so. But to others, depending on dialect and accent, they are not.
In any case, at least two of these words will be homophones to every reader, and they all offer the chance for error (as well as wordplay).
Metal — from the Greek metallon, meaning basically the same thing — is one of those “I know it when I see it” things. But what really sets metal apart from other elements? According to Merriam-Webster, metals are “opaque, fusible, ductile, and typically lustrous,” plus, they “are good conductors of electricity and heat, form cations by loss of electrons, and yield basic oxides and hydroxides.”
That’s too much scientific jargon to be useful for most laypeople, who by and large don’t have the equipment, understanding, or patience to check for the presence of oxides or the loss of electrons. Someone once explained to me what a cation was — and also that it’s “cat” + “ion” and not just the last two syllables of vacation — but it went way over my head.
Considering how Olympic medals are made from fine metals, it’s not a far stretch to assume that the two words medal and metal are etymologically related. Not so. Medal comes from medaglia, which in Old Italian, was the name of a coin worth half a denarius. That “half” is important; medaglia comes from the Late Latin medialis “middle,” from the Latin medius.
Medals are traditionally coin-shaped, and in their early incarnations were stamped with religious emblems or pictures. Later they came to be used to commemorate special events or achievements.
Mettle began its life as an alternative spelling for metal, but by the early eighteenth century, this spelling became the standard for a figurative sense referring to the quality of one’s character. Today, mettle refers to one’s disposition, temperament, or stamina.
If you have trouble with this one, try to connect the T in temperament with the Ts in mettle.
This verb meaning “to interest oneself in what is not one’s concern” goes back to the Latin miscēre “to mix.” To meddle was also, until the beginning of the eighteenth century, a euphemism for “to have sex with.” There was a time when “Do not meddle with him” could have a completely different meaning from “Do not meddle with his affairs.”
When you meddle, you put yourself in the middle of something you shouldn’t. Connecting the words meddle and middle in this way can help you nail down the right spelling.
Meddlesome vs. mettlesome
The homophonic fun doesn’t stop with those four words. Mettlesome (“full of mettle”) and meddlesome (“intrusive”) are a pair you really need to watch out for because both could be accurate descriptors. Scooby Doo and his friends, for example, were both mettlesome and meddlesome.
And if any group deserved metal medals for showing their mettle while they meddled, it’s those meddlesome kids.