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Grasp the nettle

Q From Alex Keenan: Is there any chance you can solve the grasp the nettle versus grasp the mettle debate? With grateful thanks.

A Until you wrote, I hadn’t heard there was a debate about this mainly British and Commonwealth idiom, which means to tackle some difficulty boldly.

We have got to grasp the nettle to try and prevent tragic accidents like this one.

Highland News (Inverness), 1 Oct. 2009.

It transpires that a significant number of people believe that it’s correctly grasp the mettle and that grasp the nettle is a meaningless corruption. The former version reaches the printed page often enough that it’s clear this view is fairly widespread:

At least there’s a sizeable market for publishing firms to go at, with an estimated 1.6bn internet users across the globe. Only those that grasp the mettle will prosper.

Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), 29 Sep. 2009. This form is far from new; the earliest example I’ve so far come across appeared in the Burlington Hawk-Eye of Iowa in April 1932.

A nettle

People are clearly puzzled by grasp the nettle. Why would anybody want to do that? Nettles sting. If you want to advise somebody to boldly tackle some obstacle, surely mettle, a person’s ability to cope well with difficulties, would be a better choice?

The answer lies in a minor but intriguing bit of botanical lore. It is said that the hairs on the leaves of nettles sting you if you brush up against them but don’t if you grasp them firmly. I haven’t experimented myself and it’s always possible that it’s just an old wives’ tale, or perhaps a wicked country joke on ignorant townies, though the story was first mentioned in Elizabethan times:

True it is Philautus that he which toucheth ye nettle tenderly, is soonest stung.

Euphues, by John Lyly, 1578.

Whatever the truth of the belief, the idiom grasp the nettle is based on it.

The earliest example of the full-grown idiom in its modern form that I know about is in a British book of 1830. As a proverb, on the other hand, it is much older, and was put into verse in the eighteenth century:

Tender-handed stroke a nettle,
And it stings you, for your pains:
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.

Works, by Aaron Hill, Vol 4, 1753. Hill was a dramatist and poet and at one time manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where — in 1724 — he staged the first-ever performance of Handel’s opera Rinaldo. The inclusion of mettle might seem to give comfort to those who prefer the grasp the mettle form, but it has obviously been included for the rhyme.

Page created 17 Oct. 2009

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Last modified: 17 October 2009.