Gantlet/Gauntlet; Stanch/Staunch

It All Depends on 'U'

"Stanch” is a verb meaning to block the flow of something — anything from blood to a company’s financial losses to emigration. It’s also possible to stanch the thing causing the flow — a wound, for example.

“Staunch” — note the “u” — is an adjective meaning watertight (a staunch ship) or more broadly, strong, loyal, dedicated, steadfast (it’s popular as a neutral substitute for “zealous”).

The words have the same root, and a discernible kinship, and the spelling question used to be considered a toss-up. But the modern consensus is that the twain should not meet, as they did here:

“Finally, Congress has already allocated $1.3 billion to staunch the flow of drugs …” Adding that “u” to the verb is the standard error. Make it “stanch.”

“Gantlet” (no “u”) is an ordeal, originally military punishment requiring the offender to run between two lines of fellow warriors who beat him with switches, clubs or other handy toys. “Gauntlet” (with a “u” and a different root) is a large glove, originally one that protected a combatant’s hand and forearm. Throwing down a gauntlet issued a challenge; taking one up accepted the challenge, and both phrases are still used figuratively. So, consider:

“Congress had in fact already erected by statute an intimidating gauntlet of studies, findings, public hearings, and other steps the DOD would need to take before closing a base.” Congress erected an intimidating glove? Drop the “u”; that’s a “gantlet.”

—CJR, March/April 2001

Addendum, April 2004
One e-mailer seemed to be in a challenging mood, another apparently just confused, and both sent passages from textbooks clearly endorsing “gauntlet,” with a “u,” for both the article of clothing and the unpleasantness people run through. That prompted some research, which bore these fruits:

British journalists and their worldwide followers tend to use only the “u” spellings - “gauntlet” and “staunch” - for all four meanings of the two words. The applicable British statute sensibly prescribes different spellings for “stanch” and “staunch,” yet no one seems to pay attention. As for the two “g” words, despite their distinctly different origins and meanings (but in line with historical interchangeability in the spellings) only the spelling “gauntlet” seems to be recommended British usage.

Moreover - alas! - the all-purpose “gauntlet” is clearly gaining in this country as well, as the e-mailers’ evidence suggested. But some important arbiters still insist on the spelling distinction between a glove and an ordeal. That reasoning triumphs here, as well.

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Evan Jenkins wrote the Language Corner column for CJR through the Fall of 2007.