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shameless pleading






 No much fun, but no Nazis.

Dear Word Detective: My family was having a wandering discussion recently when someone mentioned Dr. Mengele and we wondered if the word “mangled” came from him or preceded his experiments. Any info? — Diana D.

Hmm. Does Dr. Mengele often pop up in your family discussions? I hope not, but, if so, you might want to buy a copy of Monopoly or learn gin rummy. In fact, last time I checked, good old fashioned checkers had very few Nazis in it.

Josef Mengele, of course, was the sadistic SS “doctor” who performed horrific experiments on prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Mengele escaped Germany at the end of the war, traveling to South America and finally ending up hiding in Brazil, where he drowned while swimming in 1979. Mengele was a central character in Ira Levin’s novel “The Boys from Brazil,” about a post-war Nazi plot to clone Hitler, which was made into a movie in 1978, which means that Mengele may have actually seen himself portrayed by Gregory Peck.

In any case, there is, thankfully, no etymological connection between Mengele and “mangle,” a word which has been with us since the 16th century. There are actually two “mangles” in English: “mangle” as a verb meaning “to grievously injure or crush,” and “mangle” as a noun (and related verb) meaning a sort of contraption used to squeeze water from freshly-washed laundry, usually employing two or more rollers. This “laundry gizmo” kind of “mangle” appears to be derived from “mangonel,” a kind of Medieval artillery that lofted large stones or burning things at opponents. The logical connection is that early laundry “mangles” also used large stones, placed in a box atop the clothes, to squeeze out the water.

“Mangle” in the more common sense of (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it) “To hack, cut, lacerate, or mutilate (a person or animal) by repeated blows; to reduce (a body, limb, etc.) by violence to a more or less unrecognizable condition” appeared around 1500, and was also applied to things crushed, words mispronounced, and intangible entities (such as ideals, hopes, etc.) that could be figuratively “mangled.”

The roots of this “mangle” are, appropriately, a bit convoluted. The source seems to be the Anglo-Norman words “mangler” or “mahangler,” meaning “to wound or mutilate,” which may have been formed from the Old French “mahaignier,” which is also the source of two very similar English words. “Mahaignier” entered Middle English as “mayner,” became “mayn,” which, in the 14th century, became the verb “to maim” (to severely and permanently injure). The same source, in the 15th century, produced our English word “mayhem” (violence that seriously injures or maims). So “mangle,” “maim” and “mayhem” all share a common source and are all things to be avoided.

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