Grasp the nettle
I may as well grasp the nettle on this one and tackle it head on. When we grasp the nettle we tackle a difficult problem or situation with determination and vigour. An example of anything but grasping the nettle is the Government’s lamentable approach to extricating the United Kingdom from the European Union. But that is another issue.
Occasionally, I see the phrase expressed as grasp the mettle. Users are simply displaying their ignorance because it is simply a meaningless corruption of our phrase. Perhaps they are discombobulated by the image of someone deliberately wanting to touch Urtica Dioica, aka the stinging nettle. All will be explained later.
In the halcyon days of my youth when I wore short trousers and lived in the countryside, one of the (many) hazards of taking a stroll down the lanes near where I lived was inadvertently brushing one’s skin against the leaves of a nettle. The result was an irritating pain and a rash, caused by the pesky plant injecting toxins into the skin of its victim through its stiff, hollow hairs.
Fortunately, assistance was often at hand. Crushing and rubbing the leaf of a dock, which usually grew adjacent to a patch of nettles, on the affected area seemed to do the trick. Quite why, nobody seems to know. It may be that the dock leaf simply cools the inflamed area or that there are some antihistaminic properties contained within the leaf. Or it may simply be the power of a placebo.
It should come as no surprise in a country like England that was essentially rural, that the stinging properties of an inadvertent brush with a nettle were well-known. In 1578 John Lyly, in his didactic romance entitled Euphues, pointed out the perils of a pusillanimous approach to a nettle; “true it is Philautus that he which toucheth ye nettle tenderly, is soonest stung.” If you feel the need to grasp a nettle with your hand rather than cut it with a blade, you are best advised to grasp it firmly at the base of the plant where there are no or very few of those perilous hairs.
The correct way to handle a nettle was enshrined in verse in 1753 by Aaron Hill; “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.” You will note that mettle appears in the verse and this may, if one is being overly generous, explain why it appears in the mangled version of our phrase.
Hill used it, almost certainly, because it rhymed with nettle, not to sow the seeds of confusion. Indeed, the origin of mettle is altogether different. It started out life as a variant of and interchangeable with metal. Naaman the Syria, his disease and cure, written by Daniel Rogers in 1642 illustrates the point; “then she shewes the metal she is made of….to try the spirit of men, of what mettle they are made of.”
Showing your mettle made its appearance as early as 1619 in John Fletcher’s Monsieur Thomas: “When did he ride abroad since he came over? What Tavern has he us’d to? What things done That shews a man, and mettle?” By the 18th century the two words diverged in meaning, mettle being used to describe the disposition of someone’s character as this extract from the Free-Thinker of 1719 shows; “I like the Lady’s Wit and Mettle.”
So I show my mettle by grasping the nettle. Let’s consign grasping the mettle to the dustbin of history.