Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Throw Out the Gantlet?

“Gantlet” and “gauntlet” are either (1) two words that people confuse or (2) the same word spelled differently. The prescriptivist line is that “gauntlet” means glove, so you throw down the gauntlet, and “gantlet” means ordeal, so you run the gantlet. The problem is, most people say “run the gauntlet,” so usage enforcers, such as copy editors, have to keep reminding people they are wrong.

I came across such a reminder recently on the blog Copy Massage. Fellow copy editor Clay McCuistion pointed out that while dictionaries are confusing on this issue, the AP Stylebook is clear: They are distinct words. Never mind the fact that, as Clay puts it “people don’t say ‘run the gantlet.’ They say ‘run the gauntlet.’ They don’t write it correctly either.”

The discrepancy between AP’s ruling and the facts of usage got me curious about what the notoriously non-prescriptive editors at Merriam-Webster had to say about it. As you might expect, they cast further doubt on AP’s position. I posted a comment at Copy Massage that summarizes their discussion:
M-W’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) gives a tangled history of the words in which “run the gantlet” appears to be older than “run the gauntlet,” and they say the notion that “gantlet” is more correct is “mistaken,” and at any rate the words were never etymologically distinct. They also note that “British dictionaries never recognized the distinction, and “gantlet” has long since dropped out of use as a spelling variant in British English.” What to do? Go with what people say or with what AP, et al., decree with very little solid justification? An excruciating dilemma!

Clay responded by dispatching the confusion with authoritative concision:

Style doesn’t necessarily have to be logical, or even right, to be style. It merely has to be consistent. Yes, gantlet and gauntlet have confusing histories. Yes, people may use them interchangeably. But the newspaper copy editor’s bible, the AP Stylebook, has made its determination.

There is simple wisdom and sanity in those words. Tongue-Tied, however, isn’t about simple wisdom and sanity. Rather than cite the Bible and say “So it is,” I’m inclined to consult the Talmud (MWDEU) and ruminate. And the more I ruminate on this particular little rule, the more arbitrary it seems.

One of the hazards of being a copy editor is that clearly arbitrary distinctions like this become part of your internalized correctness machinery, and violations of the rules start to become irritating. Clay calls his post a “gripe”; a previous post of his that mentioned the same topic was under the heading “nitpicks.” Copy editors (and other prescriptivists) often take pride in their mastery of such distinctions, and enthusiastically collect peeves, gripes, nitpicks, and irritations.

Take, for instance, what Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage says about the tendency to use “gauntlet” rather than “gantlet”: “Like many trends, this one is worth resisting...” It sounds almost as if he finds the mere fact that it’s a trend to be reason enough to oppose it. Maybe he doesn’t want to let go of a treasured opportunity to express irritation.

I can't deny having taken pride in some peeves over the years. Nowadays, though, I’m wondering whether the typical copy editor's avid accumulation shibboleths depends on some questionable ideas about language. It often turns out that what’s considered correct usage originated as an error someone made in the murky past and is enforced in the present by an arbitrary ruling like AP’s diktat on “gauntlet/gantlet.” Ultimately it ends up getting internalized in individual editors in the form of peeves and gripes.

I’m creeping toward heresy here, so I might as well go over the edge: Clay states that it’s better to be consistent than right. But why is consistency sacrosanct? If you wrote “run the gauntlet” one week and “run the gantlet” the next week, would anyone even notice? Would there be any consequences whatsoever? (On the other hand, people would notice if you spelled it differently in the same article or issue--though if you’re using it more than once in the same article, you’re overusing it.)

(Disclaimer: I am only blogging here. I have a deeply internalized compulsion to insist on consistency in my day job, so please don't send me through the gauntlet for this.)

Update: Clay has posted an excellent response at Copy Massage, and I can't find anything in it that I would really disagree with. A very nice articulation of some of the issues involved in being a copy editor.


At 2:10 PM, Blogger Clay said...

Quite so. My response is up over at Copy Massage.

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At 12:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(I know this is an ancient post, but it's new to me.)

There's a discussion of this in The American Heritage Dictionary:

According to this, the two words *are* etymologically distinct--as a piece of armor, gauntlet comes from the diminuitive of "gant," Old English for glove; but in the sense of "running the gantlet," the source is a Swedish word, "gatlopp." A similar explanation is given in the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms.

So perhaps this wasn't a totally arbitrary decree. It's still a fairly fuzzy choice, of course, given the overwhelming predominance of "running the gaUntlet" in both written and spoken usage...and there are doubtless other issues on which the decision *has* been completely arbitrary for the sake of consistency. (Check Wikipedia on the Serial Comma, for instance.)

Interesting article, anyway. Good stuff.

At 9:46 PM, Blogger Jonmark said...

Well kids, I see a difference between knowing the two words are distinct and not knowing. Running the glove, indeed.

I associate "gauntlet" with armor, and "gantlet" with a Native American test of mettle to determine which captives would die and which would be allowed to join the tribe. That's a pretty big difference right there!

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