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Since you asked: mantel, mantle

A reader put out a request today for me to remark on the mantel/mantle distinction, and you people know that I would do anything for you. 

A mantel is a shelf above a fireplace. The mantelpiece can include the facing around the fireplace as well as the shelf.

A mantle can be a number of things, but the one that we need to pay most attention to is a cloak. A very specific cloak at that:

"When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, 'Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.' Elisha said, 'Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.' He responded, 'You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not. As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, 'Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!' But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him. ..."

As the prophet Elijah was carried bodily into heaven in that chariot of fire, he dropped his cloak, and his disciple Elisha picked it up and put it on, assuming the role and status of prophet. Cloaks no longer being much in fashion, we don't often refer to the physical object, but that passage in 2 Kings has left us with the widespread metaphorical use of the word to mean "role," "responsibility," "status." 

The two homophones come from the same root, the Latin mantellum, or cloak, and the spellings are so similar that one cannot necessarily identify a mistake as an error from ignorance or a mere typo. 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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