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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Learning English Can Be Torture, Part 4

Early forms of punishment (running the gauntlet, gladiatorial fighting in the Roman arena, hanging, etc.) may no longer be practiced (at least, not in most societies), but language that has evolved from those activities is still part of the vernacular of Americans in the 21st Century. Some of these are discussed in this month's article.


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We are entering the seasons that mark the end of the year. Our ancestors experienced the same things: plants dying (or seeming to die), winds whipping up, cold "snaps" (where did that word come from, I wonder), heavy clothing coming out of moth balls (and they literally stored the items in such protection), and crops being quickly harvested before the first frost. We often use analogies to describe people's lives in that same way: "He's in the autumn of his life." It implies the end of the person's time on earth is fast approaching. However, sometimes lives end sooner than those naturally expected deaths. This is the final installment of GenWeekly articles dealing with punishment, torture, and, in some cases, the resulting death. While the people involved in these horrific experiences may have died, the terminology continues to live on. I'll explain here.

When we park our motorhome, my husband often looks to me for some sort of signal that he has the positioning correct. If he has maneuvered it "just so," I will give him a "thumbs up" gesture and he knows we can now go to the next stage of setting up camp. But just the terms "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" (often with accompanying gestures) means "OK" or "not good," respectively. Where did we get the terminology with accompanying nonverbal movement? Originally, the meanings behind the actions were the opposite. In the days of ancient Rome, they found that sport could be had when they pitted captured gladiators against each other in an arena. The judges for the combat? Why, the spectators, of course. As the combatants continued to battle, the audience would indicate approval with their thumbs up. When one fighter, after having fought well, but was still defeated, was granted mercy (allowed to live) by the crowd, they would hide their thumbs in their fists or turn them down. Apparently the signal was misinterpreted by visitors who indicated that "thumbs down" meant "no mercy for the loser" (Mordock & Korach, pp. 149-150). Oops, well, he wasn't the first to misunderstand a nonverbal gesture (more on that for another day).

On that same theme, the phrase "Roman holiday" has its beginnings in the same activity. It has come to mean "a holiday that is obtained at the expense of others," such as the gladiator fights that brought such entertainment to the Romans (Hendrickson, p. 577). And that location in which they fought - the arena - also has an interesting origin. So much blood was spilt in the ring in which the gladiators fought that an absorbent substance was required to soak up the mess. Sand was brought into the amphitheaters for this purpose and, since the Latin word for sand is arena, it is not surprising to find the entire structure acquiring that label (p. 31).

Ironically, it is the Romans who also brought us the phrase "don't kick a man when he's down," but this time the terminology does not come from the gladiator fights (though we can certainly see how it could). In A.D. 555, Roman commander Belisarius was removed from his post by Emperor Justinian, who accused him of conspiracy. Belisarius eventually ended up on the streets to beg, now blind and only vaguely remembering his previous high station. Beggars were often kicked by the citizens of the community and when Belisarius was treated thusly, he is said to have declared, "Don't kick a man when he's down." His thoughtful bit of philosophy was queried by the villagers who inquired after his identity and, when discovering it, frequently responded with monetary assistance. From that came the popularity of the slogan of all beggars, "Don't kick a man when he's down" (Mordock & Korach, pp. 25-26).

More civilized (?) means of punishment were soon on the horizon and other cultures developed what was to become a mainstay in history in different cultures: the gallows. An early term for that device was "derrick" - for the surname of a hangman (Derick) who was at his job during the reign of Elizabeth I. The structure he used was adapted for the item of the same name, able to hoist heavy and/or awkward items (Barnhart, p. 268). Many years later, John Hancock made reference to this form of punishment, knowing the treasonous action he was undertaking when he signed the Declaration of Independence: "We may all hang together; else we shall all hang separately." Today the phrase has come to mean "stick together," "sharing the blame," etc.; all members of the group share in the positives and negatives of their actions. It is unlikely that any really expect literal hanging (Mordock & Korach, p. 41).

Early cultures and sub-cultures (such as armies) found all sorts of ways of punishing wrong-doers. Some, as noted above, cost the offender his/her (usually his) life while others left the criminal wishing he was dead. Such may be the case with "running the gauntlet," a form of punishment employed by some armies where two lines of men, standing opposite each other, forming a lane ("gauntlet") whip or hit the offender as he runs the distance (Mordock & Korach, p. 36). Initially the spelling was gantlope and it came from Swedish: gat ("a narrow path") and loppe ("run" - as in, gallop or lope, or even elope). Its origin, of course, would be the Swedish Army, where the guilty soldier would run, sans clothing, between two lines of comrades wielding whips, switches, or even swords; the more severe the offense, the longer the rows of soldiers. A similar type of punishment was exacted by the Germans (from 1618-1648) and Native American tribes (Hendrickson, p. 583). How it got from gatlope to gantlope to gauntlet is a matter of speculation. Some say that the change in spelling reflects the change in whipping instrument: that the gloves worn by the soldiers (early ones were called "gauntlets") were used instead of switches or whips (Mordock & Korach, p. 36). While this may make sense when the gloves worn by the military were made of metal, it is hardly likely that the leather, then, even later, cotton gloves of modern soldiers would result in anything more than an injured pride.

It seems most desirous for anyone, committing an offense punishable by these (and other horrific) means of torture would be better off doing all possible to escape. Prior to the use of handcuffs (which, when first invented, were far too heavy and cumbersome to be carried as regular equipment), the constable or other officer of the law would use a prisoner's own cloak to bind his (rarely her) hands. This was not the most efficient means with which to contain the individual and often the law-breaker would gain his/her freedom by slipping the arms out of the garment (Garrison, p. 346). Ex cappa (literally meaning "out of cloak") was a frequent result. Evolving into the word "escape," this term resembled one used by the Greeks, meaning "to get out of one's clothes," perhaps to elude a jailer or robber, leaving the person holding nothing but the escapee's apparel (Hendrickson, p. 237).

So, as we imagine the fates that beheld so many in earlier, less "civilized" times, we might marvel that our own ancestors survived long enough to leave descendants. As genealogists, searching for the elusive forebears, we should hang together, letting no record escape our notice. It may seem as if we are running the gauntlet in our often futile efforts to find the documents we seek; and we need to take care when a fellow genealogist is feeling the despair that comes from this: don't kick him/her when the researcher is down. Give a thumbs up to continuing the research efforts. And never take a Roman holiday, enjoying the fruits of others' labors as if they were your own: always give credit where it is due, lest you be hanged from a derrick!


Barnhart, Robert K., Ed. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Chambers, 2003.

Garrison, Webb. Why Do You Say It? The Fascinating Stories behind over 700 Everyday Words and Phrases. New York: Abingdon Press, 1955.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. & Expanded Ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 1997, 2000.

Mordock, John, & Myron Korach. Common Phrases and Where they Come from. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2001.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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