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Tossing the glove

Settle back — don’t rock the boat— and check your sunscreen as we paddle through some backwaters of the English language.

I mentioned “young men running the gantlet (NOT gauntlet)” in a previous post


that led a reader to comment: “I don’t have a hardcopy dictionary handy here (sorry), but the couple of online dictionaries I checked show ‘gantlet’ as a variant spelling of ‘gauntlet.’”

That is the simplest explanation, a variation in spelling, and it is not wrong. But wait — there’s more.

A gauntlet is a glove, originally a leather glove covered with metal plates, worn by knights in armor. The word crept into English from the French in the 15th century and survives today as a kind of long glove and in a metaphor. The metaphor rises from the chivalric practice of issuing a challenge by throwing down a gauntlet. Chivalry is long gone, but we still say throw down the gauntlet to mean issue a challenge and take up the gauntlet to mean accept the challenge.

A gantlet is a trial by ordeal, originally military, in which one person runs between two rows of men who strike him with objects as he passes. As with knightly challenges, we don’t do that much anymore, but the word survives metaphorically to represent a punishing ordeal.

We got gantlet from the Swedes, not the French; the word gatlopp (road, running course) metamorphosed into English in the 17th century as gantlope, then gantlet. (You can check for yourself in the Oxford English Dictionary, if your eyes can hold out.)

Gantlope and gantlet swiftly merged into gauntlet in an age that had no standardized orthography. The process, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage comments, was folk etymology, “the substitution of a familiar word for an unfamiliar one.”

And from that point the authorities have diverged. Merriam-Webster insists that any attempt to maintain a distinction between gauntlet and gantlet is misguided and futile. Garner’s Modern American Usage says that the trend is to use gauntlet for both senses, adding, “Like many trends, this one is worth resisting; keep gantlet for the ordeal.” In that, Garner stands with Theodore Bernstein and John Bremner, two stalwarts of a past generation who insist on the distinction. R.W. Burchfield’s revision of Fowler’s Modern English Usage says simply that gantlet is a variant spelling found in American English.

When the gods quarrel, mortals have to make choices. I like the gauntlet/gantlet distinction and follow it in my own writing. I enforce it at The Sun because it remains lodged in the AP Stylebook and our in-house stylebook, and no one cares enough to lobby for a change. What you want to do is, of course, entirely up to you.

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