Column: Heavy metal medal — or is it mettle?


Commentary by 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 like 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 for figurative uses.

I don’t fault folks like 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.