Today we have a four-way Word Nerd; four words that are completely different, but sound enough like one another to guarantee a mix-up. In alphabetical order:
Medal: a small usually metal object often resembling a coin and having a stamped design to commemorate a person or event or awarded for excellence or achievement
Meddle: to interest oneself in what is not one’s concern; to interfere without right or propriety.
Metal: any of a variety of chemical elements that are opaque, fusible, ductile, and typically lustrous substances, usually good conductors of electricity and heat, and share other properties, such as iron, gold, silver, tin, etc.; alloys of these elements are also known as metals, e.g. brass, bronze, etc.
Mettle: strength of character, spirit, vigor; to test one’s mettle is to see what one is made of.
Medal comes from the Latin word for half. Why? Well, in Old Italian, the word medaglia means a coin worth half a denarius, and its name comes from the Vulgar Latin medalis, meaning half, a corruption of the Late Latin medialis, meaning middle. The French borrowed medaglia and turned it into medialle, apparently because their medals looked like coins. By the late 1500s, medialle made its way to English and became medal.
Meddle is a 14th century word meaning to mix; it comes from the Middle English medlen, which comes from Anglo-French mesler, medler, from Vulgar Latin misculare, from Latin misc?re to mix.
Metal is also a 14th century word, which comes from the Anglo-French version of a Latin word, metallum, which means either to mine or the metal so acquired; from the Greek metallon.
Mettle first appears in 1581; it’s apparently an alteration of metal, and possibly one of the 1700 or so words that William Shakespeare invented; if he didn’t coin it, he certainly liked it, using it several times in Julius Caesar, as well as in Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and Richard II.
If you say wish somebody wouldn’t medal in your affairs, you’re saying you don’t want them to win an award for their involvement with your business.
If you say a situation will test your metal, you’re saying the situation will determine the legitimacy of your commendation.
If you say somebody received the Congressional Meddle of Honor, you’re saying that the government interfered with them.
If you say the fence is made of mettle, you’re suggesting that it has a strong will.