Today the phrase “throw down the gauntlet” means to challenge or confront someone, but in its earliest use it wasn’t meant as a metaphor, but was a physical action intended to issue a formal challenge to a duel. The word itself comes from the French word “gantelet,” and referred to the heavy, armored gloves worn by medieval knights. In an age when chivalry and personal honor were paramount, throwing a gauntlet at the feet of an enemy or opponent was considered a grave insult that could only be answered with personal combat, and the offended party was expected to “take up the gauntlet” to acknowledge and accept the challenge. Over time, as heavy steel armor became less common, gauntlets referred to any heavy glove with an extended cuff to protect the wrists, and the practice of using gloves to initiate duels continued until dueling was outlawed in Europe and the United States in the late 18th century.
A similar-sounding phrase, “to run the gauntlet,” has a completely different origin, deriving from the Swedish word “gatlopp” and Old English “gantlope,” meaning lane course or passageway. This gauntlet referred to a military punishment in which a prisoner was forced to run or walk between two columns of troops as they struck him with clubs, heavy ropes, whips or leather straps. The practice was common in the British navy in the 17th century, but was also used by Native American tribes even earlier. Today, modern militaries use less painful versions of running the gauntlet as rites of passage, and sports teams even use them as conditioning drills. The phrase is also used figuratively for a variety of mental as well as physical ordeals, such as facing a barrage of criticism or political challenges.