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Monday, July 16, 2018

Running the gambit, oops I mean gamut

I recently saw someone using the expression "running the gambit".

This is a mistake; the correct expression is "run the gamut".


But what is a gamut, anyway?

Back in the middle ages, a scale extending from low G of the modern bass clef to the upper E of the modern treble clef included all the notes generally used in medieval music. This low G was what we would call "do" of the scale, but the word "do" didn't exist at the time. "Ut" was the medieval equivalent of our "do". Like the other names of the notes in our modern-day scale, it came from the initial syllable in a line of a hymn for St John the Baptist's day: 
Ut queant laxis 
resonare fibris 
Mira gestorum 
famuli tuorum,  
Solve polluti  
labii reatum, 
Sancte Iohannes

So, to indicate that this low G was the tonic note, it was called "gamma-ut". This got squished together as "gamut" and also came to be used to designate the whole scale. 

(Over time, it became clear that "ut" was not a syllable that lent itself to singing, so the Italians replaced it with "do" in the 1600s. "Si" became "ti" in the 19th century to avoid having two notes starting with S.)

In French, the word for a musical scale is to this day gamme. Our first evidence of the word "scale" (derived from the Italian word scala, a ladder) in this sense comes from the Tudor composer Thomas Morley:
1597   T. Morley A Plaine & Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke 7   Phi. Why then was your Scale deuised of xx notes and no more? Ma. Because that compasse was the reach of most voyces: so that vnder Gam vt the voice seemed as a kinde of humming, and aboue E la a kinde of constrained shrieking.
Constrained shrieking! I love it. (Sorry, sopranos.)
I always laugh when I consult musical entries in the Oxford English Dictionary and come across the title of this book. As one of my colleagues at the Canadian Oxford Dictionary liked to call it: "Thomas Morley's Renaissance Polyphony for Dummies".

Even though it lost out to "scale" in music,  "gamut" survived in an extended figurative sense meaning "the entire range", and people have been "running the gamut" increasingly frequently since the early 19th century.  

"Gambit", on the other hand, is originally a chess term, designating a sequence of moves, involving a sacrifice to launch an attack or gain some other advantage.

The Oxford English Dictionary has this informative etymology, in which  you can almost see the etymology editor puffing on a pipe reflectively between the two sentences:
Probably a borrowing from Spanish. Or perhaps a borrowing from Italian. 
That non-committal etymology editor does conclude that ultimately the word comes from 14th-century Italian gambetto (a tripping up in wrestling), from gamba (leg). The word came into English in the chess sense in the 1600s, and two hundred years later took on the meaning of a plan, stratagem, or ploy that is calculated to gain an advantage, especially at the outset of a contest, negotiation, etc.

For many years in my youth, when I was familiar with "run the gamut" only in writing, I pronounced "gamut" as "ga-MUTT". (Have you ever pronounced it this way, or is it just me?) It came as quite a shock when I realized that it is actually pronounced "GAMM utt" and that I was, gasp, wrong.

I still like "ga-MUTT" better, though. Perhaps it would save people from confusing it with "gambit".

Photo credit: JESHOOTS.COM

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  1. Fascinating! Never knew that about the development of the musical scale.
    A question: Are we stuck with "snuck"? Are people too lazy to pronounce the whole work "sneaked"?. No athlete admits, "I puck too soon before these games." No-one says, "I spuck with my neighbour." Or, "I bruck my wrist when I fell." Help!

  2. About the scale and "ut" from Tom Allen of CBC radio. I hope you enjoy this.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.