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