meaning and origin of ‘according to Gunter’


early Gunter's scale

an early Gunter’s scale
photograph: Museum of the History of Science – Broad Street, Oxford





according to Gunter: correctly; reliably (synonym: according to Cocker)




Edmund Gunter (1581-1626) was an English mathematician who improved or invented several instruments which bear his name:
– Gunter’s chain: a chain of 4 poles’ length used in land-surveying;
– Gunter’s quadrant: an apparatus for finding the hour of the day, the azimuth, etc.;
– Gunter’s scale, also called Gunter’s rule, and the Gunter by seamen: a flat rule, two feet long, marked on one side with scales of equal parts, of chords, sines, tangents, etc., and on the other side with scales of the logarithms of those parts; used for the mechanical solution of problems in surveying and navigation;
– Gunter’s line, also called Gunter’s proportion: a logarithmic line on Gunter’s scale used for performing mechanically the operations of multiplication and division.

The earliest use of according to Gunter that I have found is from The Commentator (London) of Monday 25th June 1720:

There were at the first Institution of Government such Things as Honour and Virtue in the World; the Decay of which is the Subject of my present Enquiry. As to the Corruption and Degeneracy of Human Nature in general, I shall leave that Disquisition to the Pulpit, and consider it no further, than as it affects Society. And in this Respect, I cannot think it so universally depraved, as by the modern Practice it seems to be. There is no squaring Things in Politicks according to Gunter; the Mathematicks will have no Share in our Measures; it is become a Piece of Pedantry to talk with Reason, or vote by Rule; and the Point in Question, is not the Justice of the Cause, but the Majority of Votes.

The phrase, however, seems to have become an Americanism. In Dictionary of Americanisms (2nd edition – Boston, 1859), the American historian and linguist John Russell Bartlett (1805-86) wrote:

According to Gunter. Gunter was a distinguished arithmetician, and the inventor of a chain and scale for measuring. The Laws of Rhode Island, both colonial and recent, referring to measures, say, “All casks shall be gauged by the rule commonly called ‘gauging by Gunter.’” Hence any thing correctly and properly done is said to be “according to Gunter.”
“Mr. K—, a respected citizen of Detroit, has published a letter entirely exonerating General Cass from the charge of having defrauded his association in the land speculations. He is positive that all was done according to Gunter.”—N. Y. Tribune.

And the following is from Americanisms—Old & New (London, 1889), compiled and edited by the British lexicographer John S. Farmer (1854-1916):

Gunter, According to.—A variant of the English “According to Cocker.” Both Gunter and Cocker were distinguished mathematicians; the former, however, being a Puritan, has naturally taken the lead in the United States in preference to the latter. In Canada, also, the phrase, ‘according to Gunter,’ holds its own almost exclusively. The expression, which was English before it became naturalized in America, signifies carefully and correctly done.

Not only was the expression “English before it became naturalized in America” but it was still in use in Britain in the 19th century; for instance, the following is from the Berwick Advertiser (Northumberland) of Saturday 18th January 1834:


THOMAS CAMPBELL. […] He has weighed his lines in scales, and his rhymes in a balance. All his sentences are constructed according to Gunter. He writes with his case of mathematical instruments by his side, for the just measurement of his lines.

And this question in The Western Daily Press (Bristol) of Friday 14th October 1927 perhaps indicates that the phrase was still in use in British English in the first half of the 20th century:

To-day’s Questions.

The ten appended questions will enable readers to test their general knowledge or their capacity for finding the answers. These will be published in our next issue, in which ten more questions will be propounded.
1.—Who is meant in the phrase “According to Gunter”?

according to Gunter - Western Daily Press (Bristol) 14 October 1927

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