I like the one with the master bedroom in the basement.

Dear Word Detective: My friend and I were wondering where the phrase “pass the mantle” comes from. We’ve researched and the closest fit we can get is that it refers to an Indian’s feathered mantle. Is this passed from father to son and thus the origin of the phrase? — Paul Forman, UK.

That’s a fascinating question, so I’m counting on all you folks to be fascinated by the answer. Meanwhile, am I the only one around here who immediately thought of the HGTV show “House Hunters” when the word “mantel” popped up? Yeah, I know it’s a total scripted fake, and those people have already bought one of the houses. But, if I drank, it would make for an awesome drinking game. I’d belt one back whenever the “hunters” said “granite countertop” or “I’m creeped out by that carpet” or “en suite” or “Our dog Sammy would love that yard” or “I hate that mantel.” They always “hate the mantel,” which makes me wonder about the writers’ childhoods. I’m thinking it has something to do with Santa Claus.

You’ll notice that in the preceding paragraph I’ve spelled the word “mantel” in referring to the frame and ledge surrounding many fireplaces, while your question, quite properly, spells the word “mantle.” They’re actually the same word, but the spelling “mantel” in regard to fireplaces  became differentiated from “mantle” in the 14th century and is now standard.

The root of our modern English “mantle,” which first appeared in Old English (as “mentel”) is the Latin “mantellum,” meaning “cloak.” In English, “mantle” initially meant simply “a loose, sleeveless cloak” or “protective blanket,” and described a variety of garments, mostly outerwear, worn by all classes of people. The heavy, often plaid, blanket worn as a kind of shawl in traditional Scottish and Irish dress, for instance, is called a “mantle” or “Irish mantle” (“To keep her shoulders from cold, she comonly wore a course Irish mantle,” 1627). Eventually “mantles”  of certain colors or ornate designs came to be adopted as a symbol of power or high office.

When European explorers encountered American Indians, they noticed that many tribes used softened animal skins or furs as a similar sort of robe for warmth (and as bedding), so these became known as “mantles” as well (“They … first appeared in two bodies on a neighbouring hill; having there dismounted, and taken off their fur mantles, they advanced naked to the charge,” 1839). Decorative “mantles” also often played a role in various Indian ceremonies.

The use of specialized “mantles” in Europe as symbols of office, both civil and ecclesiastical, led to the figurative use of “mantle” to mean “duty or position of office, responsibility, authority or leadership,” frequently in the sense of an office or position in a certain field being transferred to another person. This sense tended, at first, to be used largely in “literary” or “high culture” contexts (“The sacred mantle which descended from Shakespeare to Milton,” 1789), but today is often employed in more prosaic senses (“My son will now assume the mantle of the breadwinner,” 1977). So while “mantles” in the general sense of “blanket worn as a garment” was  applied to American Indian garb by Europeans, the figurative use of “mantle” to mean “position of authority” is European in origin.

Meanwhile, the word “mantle” had developed a variety of other uses, all involving the general sense of a layer or shield “surrounding” something. The mesh covering of a gas or candle flame, which gives off light when heated, is called a mantle, as are various bits of animal organs, parts of the plumage of birds, and even an bloom of algae on a pond. The layer of the earth between the core and the crust, composed of hot rocks, is called “the mantle.” And “mantle” has also been used, since the 15th century, to mean any sort of temporary protective shelter, such as one constructed by soldiers in the field.

It was this sense of “protective support” that produced, in the 14th century, the spelling variant “mantel,” originally meaning “a piece of wood or stone supporting the wall above a fireplace,” and now referring to the entire framework, often of ornate stone or wood, surrounding a fireplace.

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