As I stood in line for a buffet last week, the fellow beside me noted that one of the bowls contained a medley of vegetables. Talk turned to a medley of tunes, a mixture of melodies. Is there, he wondered, a link between medley and melody?
The medley was born of combat. It entered Middle English from the Old French medlee, from the medieval Latin misculare, to mix, which in turn derived from the Latin miscere, to mix. In the 1300s, a medley was an intermingling of arms and legs in hand-to-hand combat – echoed in the 20th-century expression "mix it up," get into a fight.
The Old French medlee was a variant of meslee, which entered English (by way of French) in the 1600s as melee – originally a fight, and by the 1800s a general hubbub or confusion.
The Latin misculare also produced the Old French medler, which entered English in the 1300s as meddle. At the time, to meddle was to mix or mingle; now it's to intrude or interfere. From the 1400s to the 1700s, meddling with someone also meant to have sexual intercourse, a usage that persists today in the U.S. South. (If a colleague complains of a meddlesome boss, beware.)
The medley acquired its broader sense of any old mixture by the 1400s and its specific sense of a mixture of melodies by the 1600s. The word also had a sneering or disparaging sense, used for a hodgepodge or regrettable jumble. Samuel Johnson wrote in his 1755 dictionary that a "medly" (his spelling) was "a mixture; a miscellany; a mingled mass. It is commonly used with some degree of contempt." Maybe he got some bad vegetables.
Melody, it turns out, has nothing to do with medley, even if a tone-deaf singer can turn a melody into a melee. Melody comes from the Old French melodie, which ultimately derived from the Greek meloidia, choral song, a combination of melos (song) and oid (singing – source of the English ode).
Melos at first referred to a limb, which, being a part of a whole, led to the metaphorical sense of part of a musical composition. Melos was combined in the early 1800s with the French drame (drama) to create melodrama. We know the melodrama now as an emotionally fraught piece, but it began life as a play with music and songs.
In case anyone is wondering, the melo in melody has nothing to do with the mela in melancholy, however sad some tunes might be. Melancholy comes from the Greek melas, black, combined with chole, bile, and was one of the four humours (or humors) once believed to be at the root of a person's good or ill health.
The other humours – which referred in ancient and medieval times to fluids, not to comedy – were what we now know as the adjectives sanguine ( sanguis, blood), angry ( chole, yellow bile or choler) and phlegmatic ( phlegma, phlegm). Phlegma referred to the heat of inflammation, and may have been related to the Latin flagrare, to burn, which gave us flagrant.
The Greeks believed that heat produced phlegm or mucus, and that a surfeit made a person calm. If a person had too much yellow bile, he was bilious – irritable and peevish. The doctor's job, as laid down by Greek philosopher-physician Klaudios Galenos (later anglicized as Galen) in the second century AD, was to ensure that the body's humours were in balance – a mellifluous medley.
The mel in mellifluous comes from the classical Latin mel (honey), combined with fluere (to flow), which was the source of fluid – so there we are, back to the humours.
Thus, should you be singing a medley of humorous melodies, you will also be indulging in a medley of word origins. And should the medley prompt a melee, try to escape pell-mell – which, yes, goes back to the same root as melee. This may explain why Mel Brooks movies are so frenetic.