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I was rather old before I realized "gauge" is pronounced (and sometimes spelt) "gage". The etymology doesn't reveal too much:

mid-15c., from Anglo-Fr. gauge (mid-14c.), from O.N.Fr. gauger, from gauge "gauging rod," perhaps from Frank. galgo "rod, pole for measuring" (cf. O.N. gelgja "pole, perch," O.H.G. galgo, English gallows) ... The figurative use is from 1580s. As a noun, "fixed standard of measure," early 15c. (surname Gageman is early 14c.), from O.N.Fr. gauge "gauging rod." Meaning "instrument for measuring" is from 1680s.

Is it just a quirk, or is there a deeper reason?

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

That's a hard one. I'll list here what I can say about it so far, but I don't have any single definite source.

You provided the relevant etymonline link for the English etymology. I will add that dictionaries list gage as a possible alternative spelling of gauge.

The Middle English gauge comes from the Old French gauge (n.) /gauger (v.), which correspond to the Modern French jauge / jauger. In turn, none of my French dictionaries has a definite etymology for gauge. The Littré says (translated and heavily summarized):

Could come from Latin aequalificare or qualificare. Definitely related to (and influenced by) the Old French jale/jalaie (wooden measuring pail) and gallon (), which themselves come from a series of Late Latin roots including galida (from Latin galletum). Also related to the German eichen.

So, it is seen that gauge, at the time it was imported from Old French into Middle English, coexisted with a lot of words of similar meaning and close spelling. Thus, probably gauge took its writing from gauge and its pronunciation from a mixture of those words (gauge, jale, gallon).

Regarding the issue of whether the initial consonant is a soft or hard g, it is funny enough to note that while the English word, with it hard g, comes from the Old French (which had soft g), the Modern French uses gauge as a nautical term, imported from the English, with its hard initial g.

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+1 - Two comments: 1/ About the pronunciation shift from Old French "au" to English /eɪ/: there is another example in Fr. sauf => safe /seɪf/ 2/ About the etymology. Source "Dic hist Lang Franç, Robert 2vols" 1992: Germanic peoples used 2 perpendicular graduated rods to measure (to gauge) the volume of containers. A rod was named galgo (plural galga). This is still visible in the name gallow (perpendicular beams) and their Germanic cognates Galga (Swedish, Danish) and Galgen (German) all of which mean gallows. Gallon itself is a volume gauged with these galga. – Alain Pannetier Φ Aug 4 '11 at 7:29

A little side note to add...

It might be like the word "colonel" (the common pronunciation of which bothers me immensely), where the modern English term is pronounced "CUR-nul", taking from old French versions "coronel" and "coronella", but where the word in writing takes after the earlier Italian form "colonella".

"Gage" also derives from French. Like "colonel", the pronunciation keeps to the historical French while the spelling suggests otherwise.

This is really annoying. Upon finding the etymological reasons for "colonel" fairly recently, I now say something like "COR-nell". Also not long ago, someone corrected my literal pronunciation of "gauge" to my slight shock and dissatisfaction. I might start spelling "gauge" as "gage"; it sits better with my need for order, wrong as it may be.

This is heavily on another topic, but more knowledge is good.

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Hi J.J, welcome to ELU! If you want to put your post in the comments, click on 'the add a comment' box and cut 'n paste into there. If you ever want to delete your post, underneath each posts there's three buttons 'share' 'edit' 'flag'. Underneath your own posts there's a fourth tab that says 'delete' If you click on that the whole post will get deleted [- but you personally will still be able to see it in pink on the relevant page] The way the site functions won't let you delete via 'edits' :) – Araucaria Sep 30 '14 at 7:58
@Araucaria Don't forget that commenting anywhere needs 50 rep. – Andrew Leach Sep 30 '14 at 8:32
@J.J. Unfortunately this isn't an answer to the question as asked. You may be able to mould it into a question about colonel, and possibly even answer that question yourself. Do take a look at the tour and the rest of the Help pages to see more of how Stack Exchange works as a Question-and-Answer site rather than a forum. – Andrew Leach Sep 30 '14 at 8:34
@AndrewLeach J.J. nobly tried to delete their post using the edit function and deleting the words, which I assume would just leave an empty post or one with a minimum number of characters or something. Edit note which JJ left was: 'this is really a comment'. Perhaps there's something you could do to help? – Araucaria Sep 30 '14 at 8:47
It's too long to convert to a comment. The best solution to preserve (and expand) the information is to find a related question and add an answer there, taking care not to duplicate existing answers. – Andrew Leach Sep 30 '14 at 8:51

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