mettle » metal
Spotted in the wild:
- They talk of building character and testing their metal and learning life’s lessons. (Concordia College, Cobber Sports Perspectives, Apr. 10, 1989)
- We have demanded more of them than they thought they were capable. We have tested their metal. (Baylor Law School commencement address, Nov. 6, 1999)
- Though the Eagles came out on top with a 10-point victory, the Eutectics proved their metal, staging multiple comebacks throughout the game. (Asbury College Collegian, Feb. 26, 2004)
The online OED notes that mettle was originally a variant of metal, and the two forms have been differentiated orthographically only in the last few hundred years:
The form mettle was a variant spelling used in all senses in the 16th and 17th centuries; in the figurative senses documented here, there are many cases of -al spellings and -le spellings occurring in the same contexts within a single work… The graphical differentiation of mettle in figurative senses is first recognized in the sixth edition of Phillips’s New World of Words (1706). By the mid 18th century the form mettle becomes very rare in non-figurative senses, although metal persists in senses A. 1 and A. 2. A distinction in pronunciation is unlikely in any period.
Citations with the metal spelling include:
1851 N. HAWTHORNE House of Seven Gables xii. 196 The many tests that had tried his metal.
1872 ‘G. ELIOT’ Middlemarch I. viii. 116 Every man would not ring so well as that, if you tried his metal.