Discuss word origins and meanings.
Post Reply


Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Nov 19, 2008 7:17 pm

The following appeared in this week’s issue of Time Magazine:
<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>
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:


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.]]


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.)
<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>
GUTTER intransitive verb (transferred meaning)
<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
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.

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.


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

Re: guttering

Post by trolley » Wed Nov 19, 2008 8:45 pm

Tears can gutter down your face and lava can gutter down a mountain. The guttering/sputtering connection is new to me.

Re: guttering

Post by Bobinwales » Wed Nov 19, 2008 11:01 pm

If I were to describe guttering, without having read Ken's post, I would say that it is what a candle does before if goes out. I haven't heard the word used in that fashion for some years.

Guttering is also the trough that carries rainwater away from your roof to a downpipe.
Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

Re: guttering

Post by minjeff » Thu Nov 20, 2008 12:26 am

I actually thought this whole thread would be on bowling! I had completely forgotten about the troughs that carry rainwater away from houses. And I never dreamed it was about candles.

I don't know if such a term is applicable in other countries, but if one fails to keep their bowling ball on the lane, here in the States, we call it gutter balling. This seems to keep with the concep that Ken has presented.

Does anyone think that perhaps our "guts" (stomach/intestines) follow a similar ideology, the track/path which food flows?
Signature: Letters go together to make words; words go together to make phrases, and phrases sentences, but only in certain combinations. In others they're just non-sense.

Re: guttering

Post by trolley » Thu Nov 20, 2008 1:13 am

One definition of gut is a narrow channel or passageway, which certainly sounds like a gutter. The narrow channel idea also sounds similar to the definition of gully, and the gullet is the narrow passageway from the mouth to the stomach (the pre-gut?). Although it seems to all be connected I think gullet and gut have different origins. Damn, I thought I was on to something!

Re: guttering

Post by Ken Greenwald » Thu Nov 20, 2008 5:30 am

John, that was a good try, but as you noted the origins aren’t related. For the record, here is what John Ayto (every word book he wrote is outstanding) had to say on the etymology of gutter in his DICTIONARY OF WORD ORIGINS:

GUTTER [13th century]: Etymologically, a gutter is something along which ‘drops’ of water run. Its distant ancestor is Latin guta ‘drop’ (source also of English gout [[1)A mass or splash, as of blood; a large blob or clot: and makes it bleed great gouts of blood—Oscar Wild. 2) The medical condition, from the belief that gout was caused by drops of morbid humors).]]). From it was formed the Vulgar Latin derivative guttāria, which passed into English via Anglo-Norman gotere. The use of the word as a verb, meaning (of a flame) ‘flicker on the point of going out’ comes from the channel, or ‘gutter,’ formed down one side of a candle by the melted wax flowing away.

Bob, Speaking of the rain gutters on a house, I found this interesting U.S. regional note in the AMERICAN HERITAGE DICTIONARY:

GUTTER – Regional Note: Certain household words have proved important as markers for major U.S. dialect boundaries. The channels along the edge of a roof for carrying away rainwater (normally referred to in the plural) are variously known as eaves troughs or, less commonly, eaves spouts in parts of New England, the Great Lakes states, and, for the former, the West; spouting or rainspouts in eastern Pennsylvania and the Delmarva Peninsula; and gutters from Virginia southward. Along the Atlantic coast, the transition points have marked unusually clear boundaries for the three major dialect areas Northern, Midland, and Southern traditionally acknowledged by scholars of American dialects. Nowadays, however, Southern gutters seems to have become the standard U.S. term. According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, gutters has become well established in northern states along the Atlantic coast from Maine to New Jersey; in Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri; and as far west as California.

A number of words that formerly were limited to one region of the U.S. are now used throughout the country. Andiron was once Northern, contrasting with Southern dog iron and fire dog. The Southern terms remain limited to that region, but andiron is now everywhere. Other formerly Northern words that have become national include faucet, contrasting with Southern spigot; frying pan, contrasting with Midland and Upper Southern skillet; and freestone peach, contrasting with clearseed and open peach in parts of the South. Southern words that are now used nationwide include feisty and gutters.

Ken – November 19, 2008

Re: guttering

Post by Tony Farg » Thu Nov 20, 2008 10:23 am

One of the shapes of guttering here has a profile known as "ogee" which is a term also used to describe the profile of certain skirting-board and picture-frame mouldings.
Any ideas why?

Re: guttering

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Nov 21, 2008 1:15 am

[[Due to the overwhelming worldwide interest in the following discussion it has been assigned its own home at OGEE -- Forum Administrator]]

Tony, We’ve got our minds in the gutter!

I love it. A word I’ve never heard before, but which it seems I should have – a mathematical shape (the ogee or ogive[/color] curver), which shows up when discussing such diverse topics as statisitics, baseboards (skirting), architecture (arches, cornices, . . .), furniture, rockets, and even guttering. Wikipedia discusses the ogee here.


OGEE (ō’ gee) noun: Architecture

1) A double curve, resembling the letter S, formed by the union of a concave and a convex line.

2) A molding having the profile of an S-shaped curve.

3) An arch formed by two S-shaped curves meeting at a point. Also called ogee arch.

[[[1275–1325; Middle English ogeus, oggez (plural), variant (by assimilation of f ) of oggifs, presumed singular oggif diagonal rib of a vault from Anglo-French, Old French ogive, ogive’]]

OGIVE noun:

1) Architecture

a) A diagonal vaulting rib.

b) A pointed arch

2) Statistics. the distribution curve of a frequency distribution. [But note that in statistics it is just the single S-curve as defined above under ogee (1) (see here

3) Rocketry: The curved nose of a missile or rocket

[Middle English ogif, and French ogive, diagonal rib of a vault both from Old French augive, probably from Vulgar Latin obvitva, from Late Latin obvita, feminine past participle of obvire, to resist]


OGEE noun and adjective:

[Origin uncertain; perhaps shortened from ogive noun or perhaps from an unattested Anglo-Norman ogé from an unattested post-classical Latin obviatum, use as noun of neuter singular past participle of classical Latin obviāre , to obviate verb, the sense being assumed to be ‘going against’ and hence ‘supporting.’’[[I like it!]]]

1) (obsolete) A diagonal groin or rib of a vault, two of which cross each other at the vault's centre; = ogive noun. Also: a stone used in such a rib obsolete, rare.

2a) Architecture and Joinery [1591]: More fully ogee mould, ogee moulding. A moulding consisting of a continuous double curve, S-shaped in cross-section, and usually with the upper part convex and the lower part concave; a cyma reversa. Also: a moulding of this kind which is concave above and convex below; a cyma recta. Sometimes applied indiscriminately to any moulding having an S-shaped cross-section.
<2001 “The moulding surrounding the top of the clock is . . . an ogee on either side of a beading.”—Routing, February-March, page 18/3>
2b) Joinery [1677]: In full ogee plane: a joiner's moulding-plane with an ogee sole. Now chiefly historical.
<1975 “Most Moulding Planes are known by the section they produce in the wood; thus an Ogee Plane cuts an ogee moulding.”—Dictionary of Tools by R. A. Salman, page 338>
2c) Architecture [1800]: In full ogee arch: an arch whose curve is formed by two S-shaped or double curves meeting at its apex.
<1956 “The style may be described as a ‘London Rayonnant,’ with such features as the ogee arch and an insistence on the horizontal line to distinguish it from its French counterpart.”—The Speculum, Vol. 31, page 380>
2d) generally [1851]: In full ogee curve: A shallow S-shaped or double curve.
<1955 “Rosewood side table with double ogee curve on apron of long sides and tapered square legs.”—Far Eastern Quarterly, Vol. 14, page 378>

<1967 “The plot of the percentage saved as a function of income is an ogee, or horizontal ‘S’ curve with a horizontal center and rapidly rising ends.”—Review of Economics & Statistics, Vol. 49, page 89/2>

<1985 “Along joint of bowl and keel [of a pipe], a band of ogees.”—Hesperia, Vol. 54, page 182/1>

<2008 “A matching profile bit shapes the decorative ogee ‘sticking’ profile along the edges of the stiles and rails. The set is used to create 1-3/4" thick entry doors, screen doors and cabinetry with table-mounted routers.”—Business Wire, 12 November>
(quotes from Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources)

Ken – November 20, 2008

Post Reply