The other day a friend used the word gambit in a context where gamut would have been the “natural” thing to say. It goes without saying that I didn’t behave like a language fascist and point this out to them (note my cunning use of the so-called “singular they/them” to conceal gender): I merely noted a linguistic event for later investigation (Pull the other one! Ed.)
And sure enough, there is objective evidence that this isn’t a one-off—which set me wondering why. Before delving into my lucubrations, let’s look at what the two words in question mean.
What do they mean? And how are they used?
First, gambit. This originated (1656) as a chess term, originally denoting a game or series of moves that entailed making a sacrifice to gain an advantage, and then narrowing semantically to mean specifically an opening in which a player offers a sacrifice, typically of a pawn, for the sake of a compensating advantage.
However, unless you’re a chess buff, you’ll only encounter or use the word in the two other meanings that developed from those chess ones.
First historically and by frequency comes, as the OED defines it, “A remark intended to initiate or change the direction of a conversation or discussion”: e.g.
His favourite opening gambit is: ‘You are so beautiful, will you be my next wife?’.
Bernard made no response to Tom’s conversational gambits.
Typical adjectives that go with this meaning are opening and conversational.
Next, “A plan, stratagem, or ploy that is calculated to gain an advantage, esp. at the outset of a contest, negotiation, etc.”: e.g.
He sees the proposal as more of a diplomatic gambit than a serious defense proposal.
Campaign strategists are calling the plan a clever political gambit.
A more common or garden synonym for this meaning is tactic.
As in the examples, it needs adjectives to support it, such as diplomatic, bold, clever, desperate, daring, etc. Typical verbs of which it is the object are try and employ, and as subject, succeed/pay off/fail.
However, the most common verb in the corpus I consulted that “activates”1 gambit is run, of which more later.
As with gambit, and as with so very many words we use every day, gamut started life in a specific field of knowledge: music. Its more technical musical meanings needn’t concern us here, but one less technical meaning is “The full range of notes which a voice or instrument can produce, or which are used in a particular piece.” From this came its more generic modern meaning: “The whole gamut of something is the complete range of things of that kind, or a wide variety of things of that kind”: e.g.
Varied though the anthology may claim to be, it does not cover the whole gamut of Scottish poetry.
As the story unfolded throughout the past week, I experienced the gamut of emotions: shock, anger, sadness, disgust, confusion.2
The word is most often used in the syntax
the + (adjective) + gamut + of + noun(s),
and in particular in the noun group the whole gamut of.
Typical nouns are issues, topics, styles, activities, services and experience, but the most typical noun of all is emotions, as in the legendary, but somewhat apocryphal Dorothy Parker put-down of Katharine Hepburn’s acting ability: Miss Hepburn ran the whole gamut of emotions—from A to B.
Note the verb ran there, because run is far and away the most common verb “activating” gamut (followed in a lagging second place by cover.)
In what contexts are the words confused? And which way round?
Confusion of the two words is not that common, as discussed below; when it happens, gambit usually replaces gamut.
You may remember that when describing gambit I said run was its most common “activating” verb too, as in *The emotions run the gambit from joyous exultation to disgust, anger, and sadness, and each are [sic] performed so flawlessly as to take you, the viewer right into them as well.
The software underpinning the Oxford English Corpus, which I used here, makes it possible to compare the collocations of two different words (lemmas) using an analysis called “Sketch Diff”. (Bracketed figures below show the number of examples.) Using this for gambit and gamut shows that overlaps are restricted, as follows:
“activating” verb: run the gamut/gambit, (1746:50) cover the gamut/gambit (220:7)
noun + of: gamut/gambit of emotions (217:10)
adjective + noun: whole gamut/gambit (483:25)
As can be seen, the substitution of one for the other is a minority trend, unlike, e.g. replacing the etymologically correct minuscule with miniscule. Percentages of mistaken gambit out of all occurrences of the collocation in question range from 2.78 per cent (run…) to 4.92 per cent (whole…).
Another adjectival collocate of both words is usual (20:11). However, in only one of the eleven examples with gambit is it a slip: “*Emotions run the usual gambit of love and loss, but they’re sufficiently covered in metaphor and conceit, most often taking the guise of flowers and other elements of the natural world.”
Does it make any difference to understanding?
I humbly submit that it doesn’t. I’ve probably missed some, but here are some possible scenarios for people hearing/reading the confused use:
They know both words and their meanings will mentally (or verbally, if they want to lose friends) make the correction
They know only gambit, and know only its correct meaning, will interpret, query, or, possibly, attach a new (mistaken) meaning to the word
They know only gambit, and have “gamut” as a meaning and will…well, nothing will happen, actually
People who know only gamut will mentally replace gambit with gamut
People who know neither word will work out the “meaning” of gambit from the surrounding context, and possibly perpetuate the error.
Why does the confusion occur?
Neither word is common. Gambit occurs less than once per million words. Gamut is more frequent, at almost 1.5 times per million. (But compare either with say, tactic(s), which occurs 26 times per million.) According to Collins, both fall within the 30,000 most common words of English, but that hardly makes them A-listers, given that a mere 7,000 words (lemmas) make up 90% of all texts.
Their relative infrequency means that there are not many opportunities available to sort sheep from goats, or one from the other.
In addition, I can’t help wondering whether phonetics or phonotactics plays a part: gambit contains the gamb– string that occurs in gamble, gambol and a total of 47 headwords in the OED. The string gamu– occurs only in—well, you guessed it.
If you heard the word gamut and never saw it written, might you assimilate it to your known gambit?
Alternatively—and to be honest, as I get older I favour this interpretation more and more—it might be Dr Johnson’s “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.”
How old is this switching?
Some of the data in Google Ngrams is curious.3 For example, if you search for the string “gambit of emotions”, there seems to be a rash between 1968 and the mid-1990s, but then it disappears. Searching for “the whole gambit of” reveals an earliest example from 1937, including in Hansard and other parliamentary texts. However, Google Ngrams is a treacherous friend: it turns out that “the whole gambit” in Hansard means what it says, i.e. “the gambit in its entirety of…”.
An etymological note
Gambit is interesting in that it sems to be the bastard child of both Italian and Spanish.
On its first appearance in English it was gambett, showing a derivation from Italian gambetto, literally “little leg.” The OED etymology suggest this order of derivations:
gambito (Spanish, 1561) < gambetto (Italian, 14th century). Both -ito and -etto are diminutive suffixes in Spanish and Italian respectively, the ultimate source being Italian gamba = leg.
- In Mel’ˇcukian terms of lexical relations, Oper1
- Examples come from the excellent Collins Cobuild Dictionary, designed for ESL/EFL purposes, but actually extremely instructive IMHO for mother tongue speakers too.
- If you search for a string, Google will sometimes present examples that show the words occurring in the same context, but in isolation. This clearly skews results.