As I drove recently, the radio news said there might have been a breakthrough in fighting malaria.
“There remains,” some scientist was quoted as saying, “a gauntlet of medical trials that must be done.”
That struck me as funny, so funny that the guy in the car beside me must have thought I had just heard a great joke so he started poking the buttons on his radio to see what he was missing.
Hmmm, I wondered. Why would there be a big, heavy glove of medical trials to do in malaria? Wait, I reasoned, if researchers wear big gloves, they might not get bitten by mosquitoes that carry malaria? Well, it sounded plausible.
That reminded me of an old commercial for a bug repellent in which a man stuck his hand into a plastic box of mosquitoes but the spray kept them from biting.
Still, I suspected my explanation was faulty. Knights of Old England wore gauntlets with their armor, so I guess they didn’t get bitten much in their metallic cages. They would throw down the gauntlet as a challenge to an opponent – and perhaps just to save a few pounds. How did that relate to malaria, though?
What the scientist should have said, of course, was “a gantlet of medical trials.” As you know, a gantlet is a form of military punishment, stretching back perhaps to the Thirty Years War but often pictured in movies as taking place among American Indians.
The punishment went like this: Someone who has erred must run between two lines of men who beat him as he ducks and covers. “Running the gantlet” was an arduous torture.
Over the years, people have slurred “gantlet” into “gauntlet,” because the word for the glove was more familiar. That’s why we never hear it the other way around, with people “running the gauntlet.”
After I got to work that day, I saw a headline that said the changing of popes would not change the “tenants” of the Vatican. Well, yes, it does. One tenant, at least: the pope. It might not change the “tenets” of the Church, but then, from all I’ve heard of the new pope, it actually might.
Driving home, a radio show referred to as the “scion” of a family. Except they pronounced it SY-ONN, not SY-un. It means the offspring of a family, and Toyota was exactly right when it named its line of smaller, cheaper cars Scion.
“Scion” reminded me of other short words that often get mangled in speech. People will say CHAS-em instead of KAS-um for chasm, and SKIZ-em instead of SIZZ-em for schism.
As I drove along, I grew depressed about the state of the language until I heard a commentator use the word “imprimatur” – and he said it correctly! It was the first time I had ever heard it said, and I certainly have never attempted it myself. It’s pronounced IM-prim-MOTT-er, by the way, and it means – oh, go look it up. The dictionary is our friend – no matter what we hear on the radio.