I’m not up on my torchology, but from the context it is clear that a guttering torch is not doing well. But what exactly is it doing? Having never carried a torch or been in the presence of anyone who has, it might be a good idea if I first provided a definition of this ever popular object, beloved of Indiana Jones types winding their way through caves and of Olympians carrying their oversized versions of a Zippo cigarette lighter:<2008 “A guttering torch is being passed in the GOP [[Republican party]], and the battle is on to see who will seize it: Mitt Romney, 2008’s also-ran? Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty? . . . .”—Time Magazine, 24 November, page 11>
RANDOM HOUSE WEBSTER'S UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY
TORCH noun: A light to be carried in the hand, consisting of some combustible substance, as resinous wood, or of twisted flax or the like soaked with tallow or other flammable substance, ignited at the upper end [[looks like the Olympic Zippo might not cut it.]]
OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY
GUTTER intransitive verb: Of a candle: To melt away rapidly by its becoming channelled on one side and the tallow or wax pouring down; to sweal [[melt away]]. Also with down, out. (The chief current sense.)
GUTTER intransitive verb (transferred meaning)<1706 “To Gutter, to sweal, or run, as a candle sometimes does.”—The New World of English Words: A general dictionary by Phillips (Kersey edition)>
<1753 “The external coat, thus made, prevents them from guttering.”—Philosophic Transactions, XLVII, page 236>
<1840 “The candles flickered and guttered down.”— Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens, lv>
<1875 “A crown of . . . red formed upon the . . . wick, which toppled over in the socket and guttered out with a sharp hiss.”— A Foregone Conclusion by W. D. Howells, iv, page 149>
<1942 “Lawrence of Arabia, encamped in Trans-Jordan . . . ruefully wrote by guttering candle light a dispatch to General Allenby . . .”—New York Times,15 March, page E4>
<1977 “Fires burned in three factory buildings, the flames lighting the streets like guttering candles.”—New York Times, 4 October, page
<1997 “A soft flame bobs in the core of the ruins, like the guttering licks from a spent votive candle.”—New York Daily News, 20 July>
<1999 “ . . . the four lead men carrying guttering torches to light their road.”—The Runelords: The Sum of All Men by David Farland, page 405>
<2008 “The medical card debate or more accurately, furore generated both white heat and the luminescence of a guttering candle.”—Daily Mail (London), 21 October>
Hmm. This OED definition doesn’t real grab me, but from the quotes I think we can infer that gutters are channels that form on side of a candle which allows the liquified wax on the top of the candle to pour down the sides which evidently deprives the flame of its liquid fuel – I think. I’m not much up on my candleology either! And if we transfer this idea to torches, if it is indeed transferable, we supposedly have a similar story.<1869 “I have turned Wendell Phillips like a drenching fireman's hose on a parson, and made him sputter and gutter and go to his wife to trim his wick.”—Letters (1970) of G. Meredith, 27 December, I. page 409>
<1872 “With . .. a nose guttering like a candle.”—Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy, I. vii>
<1908 “. . . and adown the further slopes with ‘guttering brakes a-squeal’”—New York Times, 19 November, page SM6>
<1917 “My self-possession flares up for a second. . . . My self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark.”—Prufrock by T. S. Eliot, page 22>
<1944 “Representative Outland, Democrat, of California, accused Governor Dewey today of waging a campaign versed in ‘guttering generalities and vagueness’ . . .”—New York Times, 20 September, page 17>
<1981 “Like a candle that gives off light, only to consume itself, America's great municipal libraries are in danger of flickering and guttering into cold relics in the next several years.”—Christian Science Monitor, page 1>
<1999 “. . . in a world where the sacred cause of human freedom was guttering on the edge of extinction.”— Heartlight by M. Z. Bradley, page 121>
<2008 “ . . . in the guttering light of the campfire . . . they watched in silence as she walked around the ring . . . “—Herald Express (Torquay U.K.), 16 June
Here’s what the AMERICAN HERITAGE DICTIONARY has to say on the verb ‘gutter.’:
GUTTER intransitive verb:
1) To flow in channels or rivulets.
2) To melt away through the side of the hollow formed by a burning wick. Used of a candle.
3) To burn low and unsteadily; flicker.
And here's what the RANDOM HOUSE WEBSTER’S UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY has to say:
GUTTER intransitive verb:
1) (of a candle) To lose molten wax accumulated in a hollow space around the wick.
2) (of a lamp or candle flame) to burn low or to be blown so as to be nearly extinguished.
Ah ha! Through this process of a forming a channel (or channels) on the side of a candle the liquid wax leaks out and the flame becomes unsteady and sputters, flickers, and dims if it doesn’t go out altogether. And it appears that the author of the above Time Magazine quote goes with the American Heritage definition (3) and Random House’s definition (2) [applied to a torch] and not with the preliminaries described by American Heritage’s (1), (2), Random House’s (1) [applied to a torch] and the Oxford English Dictionary definition [applied to a torch].
O.K. So there we have it. That’s a relief. Now I understands and just loves the intransitive verb guttering and am going to use it at every opportunity I get, which might be never! (>;)
Ken G – November 19, 2008