Laurie Barber's My Word: Running the gauntlet

During a visit to Darwin, I came across a news item about an Olympian being required to “run the gauntlet” of public opinion.

That brought to mind an annual event run by some people in Ireland. I checked and, sure enough, this place will hold its Running the Gauntlet event (“choice of tea and soup at the finish, provided by Kate Kearney’s Cottage”).

Only in Ireland…

So, what’s the connection between a gauntlet and running the gauntlet? Well, not much, really, but the expression “running the gauntlet” has become so entrenched in our language that I don’t think anything will change it.

The gloves we use sometimes for gardening and a few other things have been called gauntlets. In medieval times, gauntlets formed part of suits of armour and were made of much stronger material, including steel plates designed to injure more than snails and fruit flies.

The novelist Henry Fielding in his Tom Jones used the word gantlope.

Sometimes if those knights wished to issue a challenge, they would throw down their gauntlet and, if the person challenged took up the gauntlet then the challenge would be accepted. Presumably, they would then fight until one knight saw the light of day and said goodnight.

The first use of the word I could find came in 1420. On that occasion it was spelt gauntlette.

But originally the gauntlet had nothing to do with the word we now use in the expression “run the gauntlet”.

The gauntlet was promoted in the 30-years war 1616-1648. The soldier being punished was to run through two groups of men, each of whom had a stick or knotted cord that he was supposed to swing at the victim.

 Later, it was adopted in courts of law, the first reference to it being made in 1616.

I think the problem is in the word people were supposed to use. Nobody could spell it.

In 1646, the First Earl of Shaftsbury in his diary said “three were condemned to die, two to run the gantelope”.

Gantelope was an Anglicised form of the Swedish gatu-lop. The big Oxford dictionary says that a military punishment of the time had the “culprit” stripped to the waist between two rows of men who struck at him with a stick or knotted cord.

Blount’s glossary of words said in 1656 gantlope, also spelt ghent lope, represented “a punishment of souldiers (his spelling), first invented at Ghent and therefore so called”. A 1706 report said 400 people had been forced to “run the gantlope” for not doing their duty.

The novelist Henry Fielding in his Tom Jones used the word gantlope. Occasionally it was spelt gantelope and gantlop and I found one occasion when the expression “the female gauntlope” was used.

I have to assume that somewhere over the years the association of similar-sounding words, or difficulty in spelling the correct word, led to an assumption that “throwing down the gauntlet” and “running the gauntlet” both employed the same word.

These days very few would talk about running the gantelope or running “the female gauntlope”.

But I think gauntlet is here to stay.

lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au

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