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How To Use "Metal," "Medal," "Mettle," & "Meddle"

In this post, I show how to use the very frequently used words metal and medal, as well as their somewhat less common homophones mettle and meddle. Even native English speakers will often mix these terms up, so I have written this post to help you distinguish among them. I focus on their origins and provide some quick mnemonics. As usual, I also provide lots of example sentences to help you understand how these words are used.

Commonly Confused Words: How to Use "Metal," "Medal," "Mettle," and "Meddle"

Metal

The word metal traces back through the Latin metallum (meaning "metal," "mineral," or "quarry") to the Greek metallon (which had basically the same meanings). The original Greek word was derived from the word for "mining" (as in "removing a substance from the earth"), so a metal is literally "something that is mined."


Originally, there were only six known metals: gold, silver, copper, tin, iron, and lead. Since then, scientists have found over 90 metal elements (including sodium, calcium, and magnesium), as well as countless metallic compounds. Metals are known for being hard, solid, malleable, shiny, conductive, and ductile; however, there are various exceptions (e.g., mercury is a liquid at normal temperatures). Some elements (such as silicon and arsenic) are in between metal and nonmetal; these are called "metalloids." In addition, in extreme conditions, some nonmetals can acts like metals, and vice versa. The borderline is not well-defined, in other words.

The Periodic Table, Color-Coded By Metal, Metalloid, and Nonmetal
The Periodic Table By Metal, Metalloid, and Nonmetal

In slang terms, metal can also refer to anything that is particularly "hard," in a metaphorical sense—notably, heavy metal music. Here are a few examples of metal used in sentences:

Make sure to buy door hinges made of a sturdy, rustproof metal to ensure that they will last. Metals are often hard, but gold and aluminum can be bent easily when pressed thin enough. The former drummer brought a heavy metal sensibility to his new career as a filmmaker.

Medal

Medal came to English from French in the 16th century; it looks similar to metal because it also traces its roots back to the Latin word metallum. However, medal has a more specific meaning: "a metal disc, particularly one given as an award or to commemorate an event." A medal was originally just a trinket, such as a coin that was no longer valid currency. It later came to also refer to commemorative objects (such as medals produced in honor of the moon landing) and then to awards (such as Olympic medals). A medal is shaped like a coin but is not used in exchange for good.


Today, the most common usage is to refer to awards. This usage also brings as a verb form: to medal is to win a prize (usually by finishing in the top 3 of an event, as at the Olympics).


Here are some example sentences:

Rosemarie missed out on winning a bronze medal in skiing by a fraction of a second. My most prized possession is a medal that my grandfather received for his military service. Angie hopes to medal in the state spelling bee; if she does, she will earn a large scholarship.

Mettle

Next, we have the noun mettle, which originated as an alternate spelling of metal. In Shakespeare's time, those spellings were used interchangeably, and either one could be used in the literal sense (what we use "metal" for today) or in the figurative sense of "a person's physical or moral constitution" (based on the idea that "metal" is what a person is made of). By the early 18th century, however, metal had come to be used in only the literal sense, and mettle only in the metaphorical sense. Thus, today, mettle refers only to a person's ability to respond well to difficulties. These difficulties can be physical or mental.


Here are a couple example sentences:

Inara showed her mettle by completing the obstacle course despite having a sprained ankle. Completing law school requires significant mettle—and a lot of money.

Meddle

Finally, we have the verb meddle, which is the only one of these four words that is not related. It comes from the Old French word mesler, meaning "to mix or mingle," and ultimately from the Latin miscere (with the same meaning). You may recognize this Latin root from English words such as "mix" and "miscellaneous."


Originally (circa the 14th century), meddle meant "to be involved in"; it did not have a negative connotation. However, over time, it came to be more and more associated with a negative sense—becoming too involved in something, especially something that is one should not be involved in to begin with. That is how we get the current meaning,* "to interfere with something that is not one's concern." There is also a slight variation: "to handle an object without permission."

* Fun Fact: For a few centuries, meddle also was a euphemism for "to have sex with"; this fell out of favor by the 1700s, however.


When meddle is used with a direct object, use the preposition "in" unless you are referring to the handling of objects; in that case, use "with" instead. Here are a couple uses of meddle in sentences to show this difference:

The principal always meddled in the students' affairs, such as by choosing the prom theme. Please stop meddling with my son's toys; he hates when they are not where he left them.

To distinguish among these words, think about the distinct parts of each: "tal" in metal, "dal" in medal, "ttle" in mettle, and "ddle" in meddle. I remember these words by thinking of a tall metal building, Olympians giving up their medals due to a scandal, the mettle that early American settlers needed to survive, and the fact that meddling means getting in the middle of something.


That's all for this post! Please let me know if you need any additional explanation, or if you have suggestions of particularly difficult homonyms that I can help with. You can leave a comment below or email me at info@elevationediting.com. Thank you for reading, and please visit ElevationEditing.com the next time you need high-quality editing services.

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