Gaffe about gaff

It is Christmas party season and I love to go out and socialise although I always have a fear of making a faux pas or a gaffe. Both of these words for social blunders have come from French, a faux pas is literally a false step and a gaffe is a clumsy remark. However, I have a new strategy, if I do say the wrong thing I shall admit to my gaffe and then distract them with the story of the word as follows.

Gaffe or gaff is a multiple loan word from the French. It was first borrowed directly from the Old French to describe a boathook (a gaff) and then later to describe saying the wrong thing (a gaffe). Both these meanings come directly from the French.

Gaff is a word that has been used in many different ways. It has picked up a few meanings among English-speaking dialects and the patois of certain sub-cultures. Gaff, as a hook, spike, or spar has many applications particularly in fishing, sailing or in electrical work. Mainstream meanings, along these lines, include a:

  • spear or spearhead for taking fish or turtles
  • handled hook for holding or lifting heavy fish
  • metal spur for a gamecock
  • butcher’s hook
  • climbing iron or its steel point used by a telephone lineman
  • spar on which the head of a fore-and-aft sail is extended

Gaff may also have had a much older parent than the French gaffe. There is an Old English word, gafspraec, which meant buffoonery or scurrilous talk. This meaning may have been the source of some of the slang uses:

  • foolish talk, nonsense
  • stand the gaff (in the US and Canada) to endure ridicule or difficulties
  • blow the gaff (in Britain) to divulge a secret

A gaffer referred to an old man in the 16th century—it is thought to be a contraction of godfather. In Britain this sense became used for foremen and supervisors. It has become established usage on television and film sets for the electrician in charge of lighting. When cables are taped down on a stage or set gaffer tape is used and they are said to be gaffed or gaffered.

There are other theatrical uses of gaff. A cheap or low-class theatre or music hall in Victorian England was known as a penny-gaff. A gaff is also an item of clothing worn by men impersonating women to flatten their genitalia when they are wearing tight clothing. One only assumes that this name relates to the associated preparation which involves taping things away!

So now that I am prepared to tell the story of gaffs, gaffes, and gaffers I must be careful that if I want to make polite conversation that I don’t make a gaffe about that gaff.