No matter how much I learn about language, I am continually discovering definitions and guidelines and applications to keep me humble. Language serves as a training ground for admitting mistakes and embracing my imperfections while still enjoying the discipline!
This week’s Which Word Wednesday matchup—gantlet vs. gauntlet—has given me quite the training session. Perhaps you’ve heard it said that someone has “run the gauntlet”—meaning the person has faced a severe challenge. I know I’ve heard it—maybe I’ve even said it—and I haven’t thought anything of it.
Until I discovered that a gauntlet is a glove.
uhh . . . oops. I’ve been wrong for years on this one, people! And even more frustrating, the New Oxford American Dictionary doesn’t have it right, so we can’t look to its entries for clarification. (Deep.Breaths.Needed.)
Instead, let’s look to Dave Dowling’s The Wrong Word Dictionary, which gives these definitions1:
Gantlet, an old form of punishment, requires a person to run between two lines of people who flog him as he passes. Thieves were once made to run the gantlet as their punishment.
Gauntlet refers to a heavy armored glove worn in medieval times. It is often used figuratively to mean a challenge, as in he threw down the gauntlet.
So you run a gantlet but throw down (or pick up) a gauntlet. How did it become common to run a gauntlet? Are there gigantic gloves in existence that I am unaware of?!?!
Much of the trouble, as I see it, is that today, we don’t use gantlets for punishments or gauntlets for protection. These are old words that we use figuratively for modern circumstances . . . and that opens us up to all manner of personal definitions.
But now we know. We can use these words properly. Right?
What’s my WWW verdict? Old words are tricksy.
What’s your verdict? Do you know the difference between gantlet and gauntlet? Have you ever run around a humongous glove? Do share in the comments.
Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.