Q: I keep hearing “gamut” misused, as in “run the gambit,” which doesn’t make sense. What’s the deal with people confusing these two words?
A: Yes, “run the gambit” is on the loose, but “run the gamut” is much more popular in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the British National Corpus, and News on the Web, a database from online newspapers and magazines.
The original idiomatic expression, “run the gamut,” which means to extend over an entire range, showed up in English nearly three centuries ago.
The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Courtier, Robert Samber’s 1724 translation of a 16th-century etiquette book by the Italian writer Baldassare Castiglione:
“When they talk with any one, after a Pause, [they] renew their Discourse in such a Tone as if they were running over the Gamut.”
The next example is from Flim-Flams! (1805), a novel by Isaac D’Israeli, father of the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli:
“He runs through the whole gamut of the heart, from bass to treble.”
Those two early citations reflect the musical origins of the expression. As an etymology note at Merriam-Webster Online explains, the term comes from a musical scale developed in the 11th century by the musician and monk Guido d’Arezzo:
“Guido called the first line of his bass staff gamma and the first note in his scale ut, which meant that gamma ut was the term for a note written on the first staff line. In time, gamma ut underwent a shortening to gamut but climbed the scale of meaning. It expanded to cover all the notes of Guido’s scale, then all the notes in the range of an instrument, and, eventually, an entire range of any sort.”
The first English example for the noun “gamut” in the OED is from a treatise on counterpoint, written sometime before 1445, by the English composer Lionel Power:
“Gamut hathe 3 acordis: re, mi, sol be proprechaunt; re a 12, mi a 13, sol a 15.”
The dictionary notes that “run the gamut” has the rare musical sense of to “perform all the notes of the scale, or all the notes within the compass of a particular singer or instrument,” but adds that the usual, more expansive meaning of the expression is “to experience, display, or perform the complete range of something.”
When the word “gambit” showed up in English in the 17th century, according to the OED, it referred in chess to “a game, or sequence of moves, involving a sacrifice to launch an attack or gain some other advantage.”
When used in chess now, the dictionary says, the term usually refers to “an opening in which a player offers a sacrifice, typically of a pawn, for the sake of a compensating advantage.”
The earliest citation in the dictionary is from The Royall Game of Chesse-Play, Francis Beale’s 1656 translation of a work by the Italian chess writer Gioachino Greco: “Illustrated with almost an hundred Gambetts.”
In the mid-19th century, Oxford says, the term “gambit” took on two expanded senses: (1) a “remark intended to initiate or change the direction of a conversation” and (2) a “plan, stratagem, or ploy that is calculated to gain an advantage, esp. at the outset of a contest, negotiation, etc.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation for the first sense is from the Jan. 1, 1853, issue of Punch: “Would you think I … played Knight’s gambit, or rather opening, if I ventured the colloquial critique—‘very fine oysters!’ ”
The earliest example for the second sense is from Memoirs of the Court and Cabinet of George III (1855), by the Duke of Buckingham:
“The dashing gambit which his opponent directed, was neither evaded with caution nor defended with skill.”
As for “run the gambit,” the misuse has been around for dozens of years. The earliest example we’ve found is from Fuad: King of Egypt, a 1936 biography by the Indian author Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah:
“Zaghlul was the popular idol, and anyone who was even faintly critical of his activities must perforce run the gambit of mob disapproval.”
And here’s a double whammy from the official record of an April 1, 1959, hearing about freight car shortages, held by a US Senate subcommittee in Kansas City, Kansas:
“All the cars that go out to my district, the main industry of which is lumber, have to run the gambit in California, or they have to run the gambit in Washington.” (The speaker, Rep. Charles O. Porter, an Oregon Democrat, addressed the Freight Car Shortage Subcommittee of the Senate Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee.)
This excerpt from a 1947 book in the Foreign Relations of the United States series, the State Department’s official record of major American foreign policy decisions, describes Soviet policies toward the West:
“The zigs and zags have run the gambit from out and out revolutionary hostility to the Popular Front with Social Democrats during the 30’s, the pact with Hitler, Big Power unity, parliamentary ‘cooperation’ and now back to anti-parliamentary, anti-imperialist revolutionary hostility and noncooperation.”
We’ve found hundreds of more recent examples for “run the gambit,” including these:
“Food offerings run the gambit from Wisconsin classics like cheese curds and pretzel sticks to salmon and sirloin” (from the Aug 10, 2017, issue of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).
“Let’s run the gambit of possible outcomes, which not surprisingly range from ‘everyone dies’ to “everyone dies’ ” (from a Jan. 20, 2017, item on Huffington Post).
“Villa options run the gambit from deluxe pads to rustic fincas” (from the July, 18, 2015, issue of the Guardian).
“Wedding flowers are an expression of individual taste and run the gambit from lush exotics to simple handmade arrangements” (from the Feb. 15, 2015, Hartford Courant).
“The Forest Service has closed 886,000 acres of forests to the public because of the infiltration of pot growers, who run the gambit from ‘flower children” caught in a ’60s time warp to dangerous organized criminals” (from the Nov. 2, 1988, Christian Science Monitor).
Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says, “Misusing gambit for gamut is an increasingly common malapropism,” but Bryan A. Garner, the author, lists it at only the lowest stage in his five-stage language-change index.
The term “malapropism” refers to the unintentionally comic misuse of a word, especially by confusing it with a similar-sounding one. The misuse of “gambit” for “gamut” may also be called an “eggcorn,” mistaking a word or phrase for a similar-sounding one.
In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misunderstandings, we discuss malapropisms and eggcorns, as well as spoonerisms and mondegreens, two other kinds of language bloopers. A 2011 post on our blog includes an excerpt from Origins about such misuses.
A 2005 entry by the linguist Ben Zimmer on the Eggcorn Database cites “run the gambit” and includes several more examples.
The database also has a 2005 contribution by the linguist Arnold Zwicky on the variation “run the gamete.” A “gamete” (1878) is a male or female reproductive cell.
Interestingly, “run the gamete” is almost as popular as “run the gambit” in general online searches, and one of the examples we’ve found even uses the expression correctly:
“Hotels run the gamete” is a Nov. 3, 2005, headline in USA Today about Caribbean procreation vacations that include romantic dinners, spa treatments, and island potions said to increase the chances of a pregnancy.
Finally, here’s a comment about “run the gambit” from The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style:
“As is often the case with idioms, the original meanings of the words composing them can be lost, obscured, or confused. In this case, the uncommon word gamut is sometimes confused with the word gambit.”
Although the term “gambit” has expanded significantly from its original chess usage, American Heritage concludes, “the phrase run the gambit is a mistake.” We’ll add that “run the gamete” is too, despite that procreative exception.