Running the Gamut and Running the Gauntlet

Two frequently confused expressions are “to run the gamut” and “to run the gauntlet.”

Gamut originated as a medieval musical term. The word is still used to mean “the full range of notes that a voice or instrument can produce.” Figuratively, gamut means “the full range or scope of something.” For example, a person might “run the gamut of emotions from rage to despair.”

Gauntlet derives from the French word for glove: gant. In the Middle Ages, a gauntlet was a reinforced glove, usually made of leather, covered with plates of steel.

A medieval custom gave rise to figurative expressions still used in modern English: one knight would challenge another by throwing down one of his gauntlets. His opponent, if willing to fight, would pick up the gauntlet. From this custom derive the expressions “to cast the gauntlet,” “to fling down the gauntlet,” and “to throw down the gauntlet,” meaning, “to issue a challenge.” Likewise, modern speakers use the expression “to take up the gauntlet,” meaning “to accept a challenge.”

The word gauntlet in the expression “to run the gauntlet” has nothing to do with the word for glove. It’s a corrupted form of the Swedish word gatlopp, which was borrowed into English with the meaning “military punishment in which the offender runs between rows of men who beat him in passing.”

Early spellings of gatlopp in English were gantelope and gantlope. At the same time, gauntlet had the variant spellings gantelet and gantlet. Not surprisingly, the words came to be confused with one another: “to run the gantlope” became “to run the gantlet.” and eventually, “to run the gauntlet.”

Purists object to the spelling gauntlet in the expression “to run the gauntlet.” Some stylebooks, notably Chicago and AP, support gantlet, but Paul Brians (Common Errors in English Usage), disposes of the gantlet version as a variant.

On the Ngram Viewer chart beginning with 1800, “to run the gauntlet” is by far the more common form. The earliest citation of “to run the gauntlet” in the OED is dated 1676.

Bottom line: “To run the gauntlet” is the more common version of the expression that means, “to run past a row of people who are trying to hurt you.” It can be used either literally or figuratively:

Political prisoners in Tehran’s Evin prison have allegedly been forced to run a gauntlet of armed guards armed with batons.

Kasich, if he is to run a successful race for president, will have to run the gauntlet of the Republican primaries first.

What is not acceptable is mixing up “running the gauntlet” with “running the gamut.”

The following examples are from printed books. The first two are from self-published novels, but the third—O tempora, O mores—is from a serious nonfiction book published by Penguin:

INCORRECT: His emotions ran the gauntlet from calm to sobbing quietly. Mike Holst, The Last Trip Down the Mountain, iUniverse, 2011.
CORRECT : His emotions ran the gamut from calm to sobbing quietly.

INCORRECT: Their experiences ran the gauntlet from “sadistic preferential” pedophiles, to serial killers who were depressive or enraged… Bill Riveron, The Trojan Killer, AuthorHouse, 2011.
CORRECT : Their experiences ran the gamut from “sadistic preferential” pedophiles, to serial killers who were depressive or enraged…

INCORRECT: Treatment ran the gauntlet from kindness to torture. Deborah J. Swift, The Tin Ticket, Penguin, 2010
CORRECT : Treatment ran the gamut from kindness to torture.

If an adverbial phrase follows “to run the gauntlet,” the most usual choices for the preposition to introduce it are past or through:

Farragut ran the gauntlet past Vicksburg’s guns 28 June.

Men fell back on either side so that he ran the gauntlet through their ranks.