(Originally published in the Boston Sunday Globe, March 28, 2004)
"MARTHA STEWART may still have to run another legal gauntlet," predicted a story in this section two weeks ago, prompting a usage dissent from reader Richard Sachs of Chelmsford: Shouldn't that be a legal gantlet? he wondered. Dan Tanner of Westborough had already issued his challenge: Run the gauntlet, he e-mailed, "is getting past Globe editors. A gauntlet is a glove. A gantlet is what one might run."
The Globe stylebook sides with the plaintiffs: "A gantlet is a military punishment in which the offender ran between two rows of men who struck him . . . A gauntlet is a medieval glove worn by knights in armor." Simple enough, but there's a catch: Most of the world disagrees.
The problem is not with gauntlet, the glove, a straightforward borrowing from French; a gauntlet may be flung down or picked up, but it's never confused with a gantlet. No, it's gantlet whose checkered past makes it hard to defend with a pure prescriptive passion, for gantlet was compromised from the beginning. On its way from Sweden to England, where it first shows up in print in 1636, it was transformed from gattlopp ("lane-course") to gantelope or gantlope.
A decade later, the Oxford English Dictionary records, the new word had already acquired a folk etymology: An imaginative commentator suggested that it derived from "Ghent Lope," a punishment "invented at Ghent . . . and therefore so called." This fanciful notion didn't catch on, though, and gantlope, under pressure from the similar gauntlet, soon gave way. Gauntlet has meant both punishment and glove since at least 1676.
In the ensuing centuries, Britons seem not to have lost any sleep over the potential confusion. In the colonies, however, some worthy watchdog must have decided we could do better, and in the 19th century gantlet was temporarily revived as the word for the ordeal. It didn't last, though -- Clint Eastwood's 1977 movie "The Gauntlet" was about the purists' gantlet. And today, editors who like gantlet have to dig deep for lexicographical support. Most dictionaries call gantlet a variant of the standard, dominant gauntlet.
Newspapers beyond US borders also use gauntlet almost exclusively -- it's the spelling of choice in 99 percent of variations on the phrase run the gauntlet. And yet, US editors haven't knuckled under. In newspapers here, the gantlet and the gauntlet now run neck and neck* -- not a bad showing for the gantlet devotees, who must be a smallish band.
Why do they make the effort, when the rest of the English-writing world does fine without gantlet? Probably because every usage nut treasures a slightly different set of niceties. Bryan Garner (shockingly!) accepts bicep as a singular, though it should be biceps. If you keep the Latin singular, he notes, you're stuck with bicepses or bicipites for plurals -- a high price for accuracy. And yet, in his Modern American Usage, Garner argues for gantlet, distinguishes between masterly and masterful, and wants to keep both insure and ensure, though one spelling would suffice.
Similarly, syndicated columnist James Kilpatrick is ferocious on the difference between each other and one another, but indifferent to the widely censured comprised of (it should be composed) and unruffled by for free. Theodore Bernstein opposed the verb chair but was willing to give up on the farther/further (one literal, one figurative) distinction. And US journalists, it seems, have adopted gantlet as a shibboleth, a password that signals membership in a select linguistic community.
It may not be the best place to make a stand, given gantlet's lack of adherents and its long-since-corrupted form. But for some usage obsessives, there's no cause like a hopeless cause.
*2016 note: The data about newspaper usage comes from Nexis searches.