med-êl-sêm • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. Of strong mettle, having unbreakable spirit, strong of mind and spirit. 2. Brave, courageous.
Notes: I know what you are thinking: this word should mean "nosey, interfering." No, whatever you do, do not confuse this word with meddlesome (or nettlesome "irritating" for that matter). Today's Good Word has to do with our mettle, the stuff our character is made of. It is the adjective of the noun mettle—not to be confused with metal, even though it is little more than a variant spelling of that word (see Word History). Of course, we must also dodge medal and meddle when using this word. (Whew! Is speaking English worth it?)
In Play: Keeping all these words separate poses quite a problem even for native speakers: "Riley received a medal for showing his mettle on the battlefield." He probably spent his time dodging metal shrapnel rather than meddling in other people's business. Mettle is required at all levels of human endeavor: "Now that Farnsworth has two children, we will see how mettlesome he really is."
Word History: It is no coincidence that mettle and metal look similar and sound the same: they were originally the same word. Metal was borrowed from Old French in the 14th century. The French inherited it from Latin, which borrowed it from Greek metallon, which originally meant "mine, quarry" but meant "ore, metal" by the time Latin borrowed it. In the 16th century metal took on a second meaning in England, "the stuff one is made of, one's character". The spelling always varied but it was only in the 18th century that the new meaning attached itself to an alternate spelling mettle. Here we see a hidden advantage in the inconsistencies of English spelling.
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