gauntlet, gantlet

I watched a documentary on Amy Winehouse recently, and it really drove home the downside of being famous: running the gauntlet of paparazzi everywhere you go, running the gauntlet of criticism, running the… what?

Running the gantlet? You sure? Isn’t it, like, a metaphor of running between lines of knights who are slapping you with their metal gloves? You know, gauntlets, from the same root that gives us modern French gant ‘glove’?

Just kidding. I know very well what it refers to originally: a form of punishment where someone (almost always a man, and most often a soldier or sailor) would have to walk (or run, if he could) between two lines of soldiers (or sailors, or others) who had sticks, whips, or similar weapons, and who would beat the man as he passed between them. Variations of this punishment have been around for millennia; the Romans would even at times subject every tenth man of a unit to a determinedly fatal version of this, meaning – yes – it was used for literally decimating them. (There, doesn’t that make your pedantic heart happy?) And while there were many kinds of weapons used, and while gauntlets can be formidable weapons (just try being slapped by one and see), gauntlets were not used for this and are not related to it.

So why do we say run the gauntlet? Because the original word doesn’t get used for anything else, and it sounds like gauntlet, and gauntlet has a similarly menacing air (see throw down the gauntlet).

So the original word is gantlet, right?

Nah. Gantlet is a variant spelling of gauntlet. Some usage guides – particularly some American ones – have counselled writers to reserve gauntlet for the gloves and gantlet for the punishment. It’s the same kind of split as between person and parson or between to and too – only in this case, first, two different words merged into one, and then the one word split… but not the same way as it joined. The other word that got absorbed into gauntlet, before gantlet split back off it (inasmuch as it has), was gantlope, also spelled gantelope.

Only gantlope isn’t the original form either – not quite. It came from Swedish gatlopp, from gata ‘lane’ and lopp ‘course’. So this Swedish word has, over time, passed between many hands and been beaten into a new shape: somehow it got n slapped onto it, and the lopp became lope (reasonably enough; English lope comes from the same root as Swedish lopp), and from that, of course, it ran on into gauntlet.

But run the gantlope did get established in English. It was used starting in the 1600s, and you can find it in texts ever since… but fading out over time as it was replaced (starting soon after its appearance in the 1600s) with gauntlet, a word that had already been around in English for a couple of centuries.

You can see, certainly, that gantlet is marginally closer to gantlope than gauntlet is. But you can also see that if you want to be fussy about it, you can go with gantlope. After all, dictionaries from publishers such as Oxford and Merriam-Webster will tell you that gantlet is a variant spelling of gauntlet, and they will tell you that run the gauntlet means ‘go through an ordeal’ (it’s almost never used literally anymore, of course). And they will also present gantlope (or gantelope) for your use as you wish. 

But it’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-in-you-don’t situation: if you put run the gantlope, many readers will say “Huh?” or “You got that wrong”; if you put run the gantlet, many will think it’s a misspelling; if you put run the gauntlet, a few will hasten to point out that you are an ignorant barbarian deserving of being slapped by lines of soldiers. Still, words change and phrases change. The proof is in the pudding; you might as well just do or die.*

*Originally “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” and “Theirs but to do and die

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