Gage - gauge

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Do not confuse gage and gauge: two words with different spellings and meanings. (In American English, the normal spelling is the more phonetic gage for all meanings; in British English, the distinction as laid down here is recommended.)

Both are pronounced 'gaydge', IPA: /geɪdʒ/. To pronounce gauge as 'gawdg', gɔːdʒ, is an egregious error.

  • Gage is hardly used nowadays in British English, although standard in the USA - on-line Merriam-Webster lists it as a variant of gauge, as well as the meanings below. It has two meanings.
    • It means a pledge, an item deposited as a proof of seriousness in a promise. This could be an item pawned, 'a surety'. In medieval custom, a knight would pledge his willingness to fight (or challenge another knight to battle) by throwing down his 'glove', particularly the armoured kind or 'gauntlet'.
It may be of interest to know that this gage comes from the same root as wages (see gu- - w-). The same root (the Old Teutonic wed[d], 'a pledge') gives us the verb 'to engage: to enter a binding contract or agreement, and specifically to promise marriage. Curiously enough, the verb 'to wed', meaning 'to marry', descends by a different route from the same root.
    • Another, less common meaning is the slang abbreviation for a variety of plum more formally called a greengage, the variety also known as 'Reine Claude'. This is used as rhyming slang. It may be used for 'the stage', or 'wages', occasionally concealed as 'greens'.
According to OED, the derivation is explained in "I was on a visit to Sir William Gage [(1695-1744)]..; he told me that.. in compliment to him the Plum was called the Green Gage; this was about the year 1725" (P. Collinson, c. 1768, quoted in L. W. Dillwyn Hortus Collinsonianus, 1843); although horticulturalists hold that gages are varieties of plum that may be black, purple or yellow, as well as green.
      • Very archaically, a gage was a drinking pot containing a quart, and, a little later (perhaps by misunderstanding of later writers) a tobacco pipe.
  • Gauge can be either a verb or a noun.
    • The verb 'to gauge' is to measure, or to weigh up. In the past, a gauger was an exciseman who collected the taxes on alcoholic drink, by gauging (measuring) the quantity and strength. It was not a popular profession. In common speech, it is used for 'to estimate', or 'to judge [the strength, or other quality, of]'.
    • The noun a gauge is
      • an instrument, with dials etc., such as the fuel gauge on the dashboard of a car, a rain gauge in a weather station, water gauges in steam locomotives, and stream gauges, in rivers. Carpenters and other craftspeople fit gauges (or 'stops') to some cutting tools to limit the depth to which they operate.
      • In certain technical fields, such as metalwork, a gauge is a measure on a standard conventional scale, such as the thickness of steel plate (or, on a different scale, plastic), the diameter of wire, the number of stitches per inch in knitting, or the bore (~diameter) of a shotgun barrel. The gauge is the distance between the two parallel lines of a railway line: standard gauge, the commonest, is 4 ft 8½ in (1,435 mm). Railway modellers use many conventional gauges to represent this, such as 0 gauge (used for clockwork train sets in Britain) and 00 gauge, the commonest commercial scale for electric trains. (It is reflected in the trade name 'Hornby Dublo', ~ 'double 0 [zero]').)
(Guage is a not uncommon spelling mistake. Don't make it!)

Gauge is one of the 117 mis-spellings listed as 'Common difficulties' in the section on 'Spelling' within 'Writing' in UEfAP.

In nautical usage, the spelling gage is correct in the phrases 'the weather gage' and the 'lee gage', which refer to the comparative advantages of sailing vessels nearer to the wind (having the weather gage), or further from it (having the lee gage, which is to be at a disadvantage). See also Windward.