Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Gauntlet

Versatile yokes, them gauntlet things.

They can be thrown down or run. Though a closer study of the dictionary tells me that they are entirely different words.

The first meaning of gauntlet (or gantlet) is a medieval armoured leather glove – handy to be wearing one (or two) of them late at night in the city. It is also a heavy glove with a long cuff. This is the gauntlet that can be thrown down and, naturally enough, picked up again. A challenge issued and accepted. It comes from the Old French ‘gantelet’ now the modern French ‘les gantes’ (gloves) which is in fact of Germanic origin.

The second gauntlet is a type of punishment where the victim is forced to run between two rows of men (and the perpetrators were always men) who strike at him (and the victim is always male) when he passes. Military types are fond of this type of ritual sadism. That is why it is run, it must bloody well hurt. By inference the phrase spread to mean the suffering of the slings and arrows of any sort of ordeal or even criticism.

The original word was ‘gantlope’ (a section of railway where two tracks overlap). The gantlope contracted to gantlet and the modern spelling fell under the influence of other steel glove-like meaning of gauntlet. The gantlope, by the way, comes from the Swedish ‘gatlopp’ – the passageway. Thus do words merge and elide.

The first version, French and Romantic, is dramatic and showy with idealistic portents of honour. It is also symbolistic and potentially deadly (if the challenge is answered and the gauntlet is picked up.)

The second version German and Teutonic, is immediate and ritualistic and also highly painful. Yet far less consequential perhaps is the railway version to the silk gloved. The Teutons cause harm but it could be an initiation rite which once done means you are accepted into the fold. The French version is an incitement to hatred which could lead all the way to the graveyard. The sting and power of words is paramount. Achtung, s'il vous plait!

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