A Word, Please: Throwing down the gauntlet at newspapers

In the 1984 spoof rockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap," the heavy metal band gets into trouble over the potentially offensive album "Smell the Glove." But the gantlet the band members were forced to run seems mild compared to something two major newspapers had to endure recently for failing to push a glove under readers' noses.

And if you zoned out in the middle of that last sentence because you're puzzling over whether I should have used "gauntlet" instead of "gantlet," you're in the right place. That's the very word that got readers of two big newspapers up in arms.

On Oct. 16, 2009, the Chicago Tribune ran a Page 1 story about public school students forced to dodge gangs and crime on their way to school and gave it the headline "The Gantlet." Then, on Oct. 8 of this year, Tribune sister paper the Los Angeles Times ran the Page 1 headline, "Gay teen endured a daily gantlet."

Both were met with a flood of e-mails from incensed readers. How could the editors be so careless, readers wondered. How could they not know it's spelled "gauntlet"?

Newspapers make mistakes. Doozies can and do show up on the front page and, when they do, readers probably should raise Cain. But they should check a dictionary first.

According to "Webster's New World College Dictionary," which is the go-to dictionary of both the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, "gantlet" comes from a Swedish word for "running down a lane." It usually only comes up these days in the expression "to run the gantlet," which is used to mean "to be punished" or "to be challenged."

Webster's definition of gantlet is: "a former military punishment in which the offender had to run between two rows of men who struck him with clubs, etc. as he passed." A gantlet is also "a series of troubles or difficulties" and for this definition "Webster's New World " adds the interesting note: "in these sentences, now spelled equally 'gauntlet.'"

The word "gauntlet" also has a popular figure of speech keeping it alive. "To throw down the gauntlet" is to challenge someone to a fight. Some also still say "to pick up the gauntlet," which is to accept the challenge. A gauntlet, which comes from the French, is "a medieval glove, usually of leather covered with metal plates, worn by knights in armor to protect the hand in combat," Webster's says.

It can also be a long glove with a flaring cuff or the cuff itself. Or, finally, it can be a synonym for "gantlet."

In other words, according to the dictionary, the two words can be interchangeable. The newspapers would have had a bullet-proof reason to choose "gantlet" or "gauntlet." But the two papers don't just rely on dictionaries. They also have in-house style guides, which take precedence.

And it probably won't surprise you to know that the house style guides for these Tribune Co. papers prefer the more traditional definition of each word. A gantlet, the style guide says, is a flogging ordeal, be it literal or figurative. A gauntlet, it says, is a glove.

Both newspapers used "gantlet" correctly in their headlines. But that didn't stop dozens of readers from writing to them about the "mistake."

I can't figure out why, in grammar, uninformed attacks are so common. All those readers had to do was open a dictionary. We can only hope that someday these hasty language critics will wake up and smell the glove.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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