In browsing through the third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage recently, I was surprised to read that some English speakers think a fruit medley, meaning ‘a mixture of fruits served as a dessert,’ is a fruit melody. Oh sing to me, you luscious fruits, before I devour you! And Google is accompanying that melodious singing with over eight million hits for fruit melody, roughly half as many as for the correct fruit medley. One factor in the confusion, aside from the similarity in sound of medley and melody, is that musicians have long used medley in the sense of ‘a mixture of parts of various pieces of music,’ hence the connection to melodies.
Let’s meddle with the etymology of medley: the word came into Middle English from Anglo-Norman medlee, the feminine past participle of medler, which indeed meant ‘to meddle.’ That Anglo-Norman verb was a variant of Old French mesler (modern mêler), which developed from Vulgar Latin *misculāre ‘to mix up.’ The classical Latin verb had been miscēre, whose past participle mixtus we’ve borrowed as mixto/mixed. Another related word we’ve inherited from Latin is misceláneo/miscellaneous.
As a doublet of medley, English has borrowed modern French mêlée, the feminine past participle of mêler ‘to mix,’ to mean ‘a confused fight, a brawl,’ and less combatively ‘a confusing mass of people in motion.’ Note that the brawling of the stronger meaning has knocked the accents clean out of melee, which is how English usually spells the word.
© 2013 Steven Schwartzman