Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Mangling etymology: an exercise in “words and things”

We read that Helgi, one of the greatest heroes of Old Norse poetry, sneaked, disguised as a bondmaid, into the palace of his father’s murderer and applied himself to a grindstone, but so bright or piercing were his eyes (a telltale sign of noble birth, according to the views of the medieval Scandinavians) that even a man called Blind (!) became suspicious. He said that such eyes became a warrior. To make matters worse, the “bondmaid” ground a bit too hard, because the stand under the mill was splitting. The Icelandic word for the stand, or support, of the grindstone is möndull or möndultré (tré means “tree”).

This is our Scandinavian hero with shining eyes. Helgi und Sigrun by Johannes Gehrts. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Möndull is the oldest recorded name of the object called “mangle” in Present-day English. However, in English, we also find the word mandrel with several senses, two of which are “a shaft in a lathe” and “a miner’s pick.” Both mangle and mandrel were recorded only in the eighteenth century. Their etymology is sometimes said to be unknown, but French has mandrin “a punch, mandrel,” and Classical Greek has mándra “an enclosed space, sheepfold,” also used to designate the bed in which the stone of a ring is set, “much like Engl. mandrel,” as Walter W. Skeat explains. Finally, there is Oscan mamphur “part of a lathe.” (Oscan is an extinct language of southern Italy.) It seems that the Germanic ancestor of Old Scandinavian möndull and Engl. mandrel reached Germanic speakers from the south, perhaps from Greece via Italy.

All this information can be found in dictionaries, but it will be fair to say, that the most detailed history of the noun mangle comes from the German scholar Rudolf Meringer, a brilliant representative of the movement known by its German name Wörter und Sachen (“Words and Things”). He also edited a journal called Wörter und Sachen, which is a pleasure to read, because it printed numerous illustrations, and what’s the good of the book without pictures?

An old mangle. Photo © David M Jones (cc-by-sa/2.0) via Geograph.

In retrospect, there is nothing revolutionary in the ideas of that school. Obviously, in order to discover the etymology of the word, we have to know the construction of the thing this word denotes. Yet even today one runs into attempts to explain the name of some fish as “streaked” (this is a random example), and it becomes clear that the linguist has never seen the fish in question (because it has no streaks). In 1906, Meringer investigated all the words and all the objects connected with the mangle.

Anyone can see that mangle and mandrel (we’ll disregard the suffixes) differ in one important respect: the first word has g, while the other has d in the root. Those who like novels about the Middle Ages (alas, my students have never read a single work by Walter Scott) will remember that military expeditions occupy a prominent place in them. Castles are constantly besieged, and one of the machines used to destroy them is the mangonel, a kind of catapult. The origin of the machine’s name poses no problems. The English word, first recorded in the thirteenth century, came from Old French. The etymon is Latin, but its ultimate source is Greek mágganon (gg has the value of ng). There is no nd in the root of that word.

In the Middle Ages, no walls were attacked without mangonels. From the Dictionary of French Architecture from 11th to 16th Century by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

To turn to more peaceful pastimes: the main function of the mangle is to roll and press laundered clothing. It may be useful to quote an explanation added to the definition of mangle in The Century Dictionary: “In the older form an oblong rectangular wooden chest resting upon two cylinders and loaded with stones was moved backward and forward by means of a wheel and pinion, the rollers being thus made to pass over and press the articles spread on a polished table underneath.” The construction of the mangle and the mangonel is in some respects similar.

It was believed that the pressing machine had borrowed its name from the war engine. But Meringer had a good point: the mangle, a household device, must have been the older contraption of the two, so that the mangonel was probably named after the mangle, rather than the other way around. The Greek word also meant “magical object,” and magic, as we know, can be used for both good and bad purposes. Latin mango did not necessarily denote a swindler, an unreliable dealer; as Meringer pointed out, initially it referred to any trader. In all English compounds, from whoremonger and warmonger to costermonger and fishmonger, monger goes back to the Latin word, of most probably Greek origin.

A costermonger, a hawker of fruit and vegetables. Victoria Embankment, via Leonard Bentley on Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0.

When Old Germanic mandel and the borrowed mangel met, it appeared that they denoted similar objects, and an expected fight between two near-homonyms, which happened to be near-synonyms, ensued. Scandinavian stayed with –nd-, while West Germanic (English, Dutch, and German) switched to –ng-.The plot thickens when we approach the English verb to mangle “to mutilate, crush, injure” and German mangeln “to lack.” Engl. mangle looks like a natural cognate of the word for the war machine invented for demolishing walls. This verb appeared in texts in the fourteenth century, early enough to be related to the noun, which, as noted above, though undoubtedly old, was recorded about four hundred years later. Mangonel goes back to the 1200s. The chronology is confusing and does not seem to be of much relevance in this case.

Whatever the origin of the English verb, it must have been influenced by the meaning of the noun. However the main point is this: according to what looks like scholarly consensus, mangle (verb) and mangle (noun) are unrelated. The English verb is believed to go back to Anglo-Norman mangulare, whose origin is unknown (that is, we have no idea what the reconstructed root ment- and its variant met- designated). Both maim and mayhem are its probable derivatives.  Old French mahaigner meant “to cripple.”

Related forms have been found in numerous languages, including Old Slavic, Lithuanian, and Sanskrit. They mean “to disturb, irritate; embarrass; whip butter, press, etc.” Neither met nor ment resembles a sound-symbolic or an onomatopoeic formation, so that there have been attempts to connect men– with min– as in mini– (compare diminish). German mangeln “to lack” does not quite align itself with that lot, unless we bring mini into play. Its oldest forms meant the same as today: “to lack, do without.” Is this the reason no one wants to connect it with the name of the pressing machine? Elmar Seebold in his edition of Kluge’s etymological dictionary says without any discussion that mangeln is a borrowing of Latin mancare “to mutilate.” But don’t we need “to lack”?

It would be nice to incorporate the verbs (mangle and mangeln) into the presser ~ catapult’s family and declare them related, but no one is ready to do so, and for the moment we too will stay slightly embarrassed and at the unready.

Feature image credit: The Siege of Eger in 1552 by Béla Vizkelety. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Maggie Catambay

    My mom had a mangle to iron sheets and table cloths. One day when I was about two years old, my arm was caught in that mangle! No permanent damage, but terror strikes me when I see or hear that word for that thing!

  2. Aurélien Langlois

    This might be a well-known false lead, but could the French verb “manquer” (to lack, to miss) in any way help to go from “mancare” to “mangeln”? (Or does the idea come to me only because I’m French?)

  3. Michael Lakin

    Like Maggie Catambay, my mother also had a mangle for ironing sheets and table cloths. And, again like Maggie, when I was about two my arm was similarly caught in my mother’s mangle (also without lasting harm). Luckily, our experiences didn’t lead to our ‘manquer’ (insert French gerund here) anything!

  4. Ian Binnie

    The mangel of my Scottish childhood in the 1920s was a fairly small affair as I remember, the two rolls of some white rubber-type material mounted one above the other in a frame that could be clamped to the end of the kitchen table and hand-operated by a gizmo which fitted on the square end of one of the rollers.
    I cannot for the life of me remember what articles were fed through it.

  5. Justin T. Holl Jr.

    The 21st edition of Kluge contains a more detailed etymology for “mangeln”. My copy of Kluge was once used as a doorstop by a UPS delivery man at an apartment near the University of Minnesota while it was still in the packaging. When I went to retrieve it after a call from the delivery man it had disappeared, apparently stolen. Two days later it appeared at the door of my apartment opened, but quickly repacked. Apparently people nowadays don’t recognize the value of an Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache.

Comments are closed.