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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, March 16, 2019 1:00 am

Meddling with words shows off their mettle

Curtis Honeycutt

I had a friend visit me the other day to tell me about a problem. I listened to her secret shame and consoled her. Under the veil of anonymity, she agreed to allow me to use her issue, but not her real name. For our purposes, we'll call her Gwenifer.

Gwenifer didn't know whether to use the word “medal” or “metal” in an email she was typing. When I reminded her of the existence of “meddle” and “mettle,” her brain nearly exploded. I'm afraid that's not what she needed in her moment of uncertainty.

“Medal,” “metal,” “meddle” and “mettle” are examples of homophones. Homophones are a type of homonym that sound alike, have different meanings and also have different spellings. It's no wonder Gwenifer became confused; “medal” and “metal” have some crossover meanings.

Metal is a substance such as gold, silver or copper that is usually hard and shiny. Metals are malleable and have excellent thermal and electrical conductivity properties. Other examples of metals include aluminum, iron and bronze. We get the word “metal” from the Latin word “metallum,” meaning quarry, mine or metal.

Confusingly, a medal is always made of metal. In the Olympics, the top three contestants win gold, silver and bronze medals, respectively. A medal is a flattened piece of metal, often in the shape of a circle, to commemorate or honor someone. The word “medal” originates from the Latin word “medallia,” which was a coin worth half a denarius.

“Meddle” is when you get all up in someone else's business, to borrow from a common colloquialism. “Meddle” means getting involved in another person's matters without (and often against) her consent. Gwenifer's nosy neighbor Nina often meddles when she gives Gwenifer unwelcome relationship advice. We get our modern English word “meddle” from an Old English word, “medler,” which meant “to mix.”

What does “mettle” mean, and how did we get it? It simply means courage or fortitude. Mettle speaks of a brave person's unwavering temperament. If it sounds similar to “metal,” that's because “mettle” originated from a metaphorical version of metal. In the mid-16th century, the word “mettle” shows up as a specialized spelling of the word “metal,” and should only be used in figurative senses.

I don't fault folks such as Gwenifer when they trip over these incredibly similar words; that's why I didn't even mention “pedal,” “petal,” “peddle” and “pettle.”

Those are homophones for another day.

Curtis Honeycutt, aka The Grammar Guy, is a Noblesville-based, nationally award-winning syndicated humor writer.