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At least they didn't say 'limn'

Another kerfuffle over headline words has broken out at the Los Angeles Times which published a front-page headline reading “A gay teenager’s daily gantlet.”

You can guess the rest. Readers complained that gantlet should have been gauntlet. But Henry Fuhrmann, a good man and the paper’s assistant managing editor in charge of the copy desk, had to explain that the Times maintains a distinction that has been blurred in common use:

A gauntlet is a glove. The mailed glove that a knight flung to the ground as a challenge gave rise to the expression “throwing down the gauntlet.” A gantlet is a trial by ordeal, in which the object of the trial runs between two rows of men who beat him as he passes. “Running the gantlet” is a metaphor for enduring an ordeal.

Speakers of English, you’ve noticed, are not obsessively precise about pronunciation, and the similarity of the two words has made “running the gauntlet” increasingly prevalent.

The Times was within its rights to uphold an eroding distinction in usage.

(But let me tell you, Henry, it’s a mug’s game to have to explain yourself, even when you’re right.)



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:52 PM | | Comments (4)


Actually, this is not really a subject where dogmatism is appropriate on either side. Gauntlet and gantlet in this sense are first recorded by the OED in 1676 and 1704 respectively, and both spellings have been in current use ever since. Indeed, the OED, Webster's Third, the American Heritage Dictionary (4th), and all prefer gauntlet in all senses, though they acknowlege gantlet as a legitimate variant.

The older version of the word, which the OED first reports in 1646, was gantlope, borrowed from Swedish gatlopp; it remained in use until the beginning of the 19th century. The insertion of the "n" and the change to -let probably happened under the influence of the other gauntlet, which is much older in English.

Finally, running the gauntlet or gantlet was not a trial by ordeal, but a form of punishment.

I am totally with John Cowan on this one. English transformed "gatlopp" into the more familiar gantlet the moment we borrowed the word, but it's the same word is gauntlet. Neither one is more "accurate," and there's no way to confuse "throw down the g--" with "run the g--." So what is this but a copy editor shibboleth?

Aaargh, that wasn't supposed to have typos, or be anonymous. "Same word AS 'gauntlet,' I meant. Et cetera.

What happened to descriptivism? To give an example of how the word has turned into "gauntlet," consider that Google returns 55,000 results for "running the gantlet" and 454,000 results for "running the gauntlet." Shouldn't that be a decent measure of standard English usage?

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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