Sunday, August 16, 2009

Would You Dismantle the Mantel?

Someone noted the other day in a discussion that when you've dismantled something you never say that you're going to mantle it again. As folks often do, that person wondered aloud why the two words were not antonyms and used as such. Naturally, I've had to uncover a reason.

It turns out that mantle and dismantle are related more as second cousins than brother and sister. While both share the same Latin root word (mantellum for cloak), dismantle took a bit of a detour into France and spent generations masquerading as desmanteller. The two words evolved separately in their different environments.

A mantle came to mean a covering or protective shroud in English or the outward appearance of authority, the "mantle of power". As a related tidbit, for some reason it became accepted that the covering for a fireplace should be spelled mantel instead, for no good reason that I could find. In the meantime, the French were using dismantle to mean making someone vulnerable by taking off his or her cloak and then to strip something in general of its defenses.

No source I found even attempted to explain how dismantle evolved from removing a protective outer shell to completely disassembling a piece of machinery into its component parts, but that's generally the accepted English use. Often, a certain destructiveness is implied along with a simple taking apart of a thing. When a company gets dismantled, for instance, those who do so will not be putting it back together again.