Friday, February 12, 2010


A gambit to run the gamut

A week ago, NPR’s Robert Siegel talked with Los Angeles Times reporter Ken Bensinger about the current recall of Toyota cars (the sticking accelerator), and about a possible forthcoming one (the brake problem on the 2010 Prius). Mr Bensinger tells us that this is the fifth largest auto recall ever, but then points out, about 2:50 into the audio, that not all recalls are equal:

But it’s also important to remember that recalls run the gambit from serious problems like the ones that Toyota is looking at now to minor things like radios that don’t work the way they’re supposed to work.

Apart from his downplaying the severity of faulty radios, Mr Bensinger has a problem here:

The phrase is “run the gamut”, not “run the gambit”.

A gamut is a complete range of something, as a gamut of emotions from joy to sorrow, and to run the gamut is to span the entire range.

The origin of the word is interesting: it comes from two terms for the lowest notes in Medieval Latin musical scales. Gamma referred to a low G note, as we would currently call it, and ut was syllable associated with the lowest note in a rising scale used in a Latin hymn. We still know the acrostic syllables from that hymn today:

Ut queant laxis
Resonare fibris
Mira gestorum
Famuli tuorum
Solve polluti
Labii reatum

In English we’ve changed “ut” into “do”, but the French still use “ut” to designate the first note of the diatonic scale.

[A gambit, on the other hand, is an opening strategy, and “run the gambit” is meaningless, despite the number of Google hits you’ll find for it (including, soon, this one). It’s a common error.]

1 comment:

Brent said...

Gambit is also an X-man []