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The meaning and origin of the expression: Run the gauntlet

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Run the gauntlet

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Meaning

To go through a series of criticisms or harsh treatments at the hands of one's detractors.

Origin

gauntletGauntlets are familiar to us today as the stout leather gloves used for gardening and the like. Mediaeval gauntlets were made of even sterner stuff. Gauntlets, or gantlettes, gauntelotes etc., formed part of suits of armour. They were usually covered with plates of steel and were as useful for attack as for defence. When a dispute arose involving a member of the English nobility who was wealthy enough to own his own armour then he (it was always a he) would literally 'throw down the gauntlet' as a challenge. That phrase is first recorded in Hall's Chronicles of Richard III, 1548:

"Makynge a proclamacion, that whosoeuer would saie that kynge Richard was not lawefully kynge, he woulde fighte with hym at the vtteraunce, and threwe downe his gauntlet."

run the gauntletAnother ancient custom of British fighting men was a form of punishment in which the culprit was made to run stripped to the waist between two rows of men who whipped and beat him as he passed by. These beatings were extremely severe and the victims often died as a result - and many of those that didn't may well have wished they had, as survivors were sometimes executed afterwards. This punishment is the source of the term 'running the gauntlet' and was used by both the British army and navy.

It would be natural to assume that gauntlets were used in the beatings and that 'running the gauntlet' derived from that. In fact, that's not the case and neither the punishment nor the phrase have anything to do with gauntlets, either military or horticultural.

The name of the brutal punishment was originally 'running the gantelope'. Gantlope is an Anglicized form of the Swedish word 'gatlop', or 'gatu-lop', which refers to the gate of soldiers that the victim had to pass through. The Ist Earl of Shaftsbury recorded the phrase in his Diary, 1646:

"Three were condemned to die, two to run the gantelope."

It didn't take long for gantlope to migrate into ganlet, or gauntlet - possibly as a result of a simple muddle over the similar-sounding words or possibly because of the association with the use of gauntlets as weapons and with the antagonism implicit in 'throwing down the gauntlet'.

The earliest known record of the gantlet form of the phrase is in Joseph Glanvill's The Vanity of Dogmatizing, 1661:

"To print, is to run the gantlet, and to expose ones self to the tongues strapado."

The first use of the currently used 'gauntlet' spelling comes from the intriguingly named Increase Mather, in The History of King Philip's War, 1676:

"They stripped them naked, and caused them to run the Gauntlet."

Some writers, recognising that 'gauntlet' was used in error, continued to use the 'gantelope' version into the 18th and 19th centuries - well after the word was archaic and otherwise unused; for example, Henry Fielding in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling , 1749:

"Some said he ought to be tied neck and heels; others that he deserved to run the gantlope."

Any such attempts are now long abandoned and we are left with a 'gauntlet' phrase that has nothing to do with gauntlets.