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What the mall has in common with chain mail

What does modern suburban shopping have to do with medieval armor? A lot, at least etymologically speaking.

Dan Himbrechts/AAP via Reuters
Two-time World Medieval Jousting champion Rod Walker poses for a photograph on his horse Crusader in Sydney, Australia, on Aug. 26, 2016.

What does modern suburban shopping have to do with medieval armor? A lot, at least etymologically speaking. The mall, with its food courts, chain stores, and early morning walkers, comes from the same root as mail, what soldiers wore for hundreds of years to protect themselves from pointy objects. 

Mall derives most immediately from the old game of pall-mall. This was a cousin of golf and croquet, in which players competed to hit a ball down a long field and through a hoop in the fewest number of strokes.  It became popular in England in the 17th century; King James I advised his sons to practice it, along with fencing, dancing, and “leaping,” for good health. When the game fell out of favor, its long, narrow playing fields (“malls” or “mails”) became popular promenades, places to take the air and be seen. When the first shopping centers were built in the 1950s, they were called “malls,” since, like their open-air predecessors, they were meant to be social spaces in which to walk and meet friends, with the additional enticement of things to buy. 

Pall-mall in turn comes from the French paille maille and the Italian pallamaglio (“ball” + “mallet”). These “m” words can all be traced back to the Latin word for “hammer”: malleus. Indeed “mall,” “mell,” “mail,” and “maul” refer to a heavy metal hammer used as a tool or weapon in the Middle Ages. (Spelling was, obviously, a little less than standardized at the time.) To maul someone meant to hit him with one of those massive hammers; in the 18th century, this verb expanded to indicate any kind of shattering, mangling damage, whether inflicted by hammers, fists, or wild beasts.

Mail referred not only to heavy hammers but also to the armor that provided some protection: chain mail, usually called simply “mail.” Though linguists aren’t certain, this word is probably also related to malleus, since early chain mail was made using a hammer to flatten sheets of metal around a dowel, after which rings were cut out. These rings (or “mails”) were then fashioned together into shirts of various lengths and weights.  There was a “common proverb” (according to one 16th-century book) based on this procedure: “Many mails make an haubergeon [a chain-mail shirt],” the armorer’s version of “Many drops make an ocean.”

It might seem that pell-mell is also malleus-derived, since “mell” is one way to spell the medieval weapon and “pall-mall” was actually often pronounced “pell-mell.” But this word for doing something in a disordered and hasty fashion comes from the Old French for mixing (mesler) and has nothing to do with hammers – unlike mallets, chain mail, and shopping malls.

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