Q&A: Mantle vs Mantel

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we ask the question: if you were to start a fire, would you place the matches on the mantel or the mantle?

Q: Hi AWC, I was emailing a friend the other day who had just renovated their fireplace, and they felt the need to correct me about something I wrote.

A: How rude. We wish people wouldn’t do that.

Q: That’s literally what you do all day.

A: Good point. Carry on.

Q: So, I had asked if they had kept the original mantlepiece – but they insisted it is actually spelt “mantel” and “mantelpiece” – which just seems wrong.

A: Hate to blow smoke up their chimney, but in this case they are correct.

Q: Really?

A: Yep.

Q: So is it an ‘America versus the rest of the world’ thing then?

A: Nope.

Q: Sorry, I’m really struggling with the fact that “mantle” isn’t a word.

A: Whoa – we didn’t say THAT. Mantle is totally a word. It’s just not the word for this.

Q: So what’s a “mantle” then?

A: Mantle has a bunch of meanings. The newest (1940s) is from geology – the large chunk of the planet between the core and the outer crust. According to the interwebs, Earth’s mantle makes up about 84% of the planet and is nearly 3000km thick in most places.

Q: Wow. As a planet, we’re pretty dense.

A: Yes we are. The original meaning for mantle is “something that covers” – sartorially, this is usually a type of cloak.

Q: Oh yes, my Uncle Liam used to wear one as an excavator driver. Some people thought he was working as a spy, but it turned out to be more ‘cloak and digger’.

A: That was terrible. Do you even have an Uncle Liam?

Q: Not anymore. He died after taking cough medication and then operating heavy machinery.

A: Always read the label. Anyway, there are actually many other smaller meanings for “mantle” but probably the main other one is as a role, duty or responsibility that someone takes on from another person.

Q: Example?

A: When Queen Elizabeth II dies, Charles will assume the mantle as British monarch.

Q: Do you have a better example, because I actually think the Queen will outlive Charles.

A: Okay, so after the coach left, the assistant coach to took up the mantle and guided the team to the finals.

Q: Did they win the final?

A: What? Um, sure, they won. So now we–

Q: Why did the original coach leave? Was there some sort of scandal?

A: Can we continue with “mantel” instead?

Q: Sorry. Good idea.

A: So, this one is easier. “Mantel” only has the one meaning – as a shortened form of “mantelpiece” – effectively a supporting shelf that sits above the fireplace. Today they’re often more decorative than supportive – and also go by the name “mantelshelf” in some parts of the world.

Q: So what are the origins or these two words?

A: Just one origin – the word “mantle” is the older one, and goes way back to the 12th century. It wasn’t till the early 1500s that the fireplace “mantel” variant showed up. And a mantel is essentially a cloak for a fireplace – covering it.

Q: What about Mickey Mantle?

A: He was a baseball player with the New York Yankees in the 1950s and 60s. You may have heard him mentioned in Billy Joel’s song We didn’t start the fire.

Q: And I suppose if you WERE to start a fire, you’d place the matches on the mantel and not the mantle.

A: Correct. Any further questions?

Q: Yes – where does “dismantle” come from?

A: Well, one derivative of mantle “to cloak” was also “to fortify”, so essentially when you dismantle something, you are removing this fortification.

Q: Excellent answer – in fact, here’s a trophy for explaining today’s topic so well.

A: Um, thank you. We’ll put it on our mantel.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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