gaffe

A gaffe is a mistake, a blunder, especially a verbal faux pas made by a politician. The word is a borrowing from the French, but its English use may been influenced by a Scots word as well as by a Vaudeville method of removing a floundering performer from the stage. So the origin is a bit more complex than a straightforward borrowing.

The “mistake” sense of the French gaffe, which as in English is literally a pole with a hook or barb at the end, antedates the English sense, and appears to be the proximate source for our present-day use of the word. The French word is also the origin of the English gaff or hook, but that’s a much earlier borrowing, from the thirteenth century. The earliest citation for the “mistake” sense of gaffe in the OED is from the Pall Mall Gazette in 1909:

These two gentlemen, whose weather predictions are still listened to with some deference, have made a bad “gaffe,” to use a popular slang expression.

But there’s an older sense of gaff meaning nonsense or humbug that comes from Scots, the dialect of English (some classify it as a separate language) spoken in lowland Scotland. The OED has this from W. H. Thomson’s 1877 Five Years’ Penal Servitude:

I also saw that Jemmy’s blowing up of me was all “gaff.” He knew as well as I did the things left the shop all right.

And the phrase to blow the gaff meant to reveal a secret. James Hardy Vaux includes this entry in his 1812 A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language:

BLOW THE GAFF: a person having any secret in his possession, or a knowledge of any thing injurious to another, when at last induced from revenge, or other motive, to tell it openly to the world and expose him publicly, is then said to have blown the gaff upon him.

In Scots, gaff has meant a boisterous laugh since the eighteenth century. The English guffaw also comes from this source. The Scottish poet Alexander Ross includes this line in his poem Helinore, written around 1768:

An’ tho’ poor Lindy look’t but half an’ half, Yet Bydby answer’d wi’ a blythsome gauff.

The Scots word developed into the sense of to babble, to talk foolishly or merrily. The poet James Hogg wrote in his 1801 Scottish Pastorals:

But man’tis queer to mak sik fike About an useless gauffin tike.

So it seems likely that this Scots word influenced the borrowing and use of gaffe after it was borrowed from French.

But there’s another possible influence on the English use of the word. Around the turn of the twentieth century it was an occasional practice on the Vaudeville circuit to remove an act that was bombing by using a giant hook to yank the performer from the stage. The practice went on to become a staple gag in early television comedies, so it’s familiar to later generations. While not the origin of the word gaffe, the metaphor may have helped boost its use in present-day political circles.

Of course, no discussion of the word gaffe would be complete without mention of journalist Michael Kinsley’s definition of the word. (It’s one of those unwritten rules of language commentary that one must mention Kinsley when discussing gaffe.) In 1984, Kinsley wrote:

The dictionary defines “gaffe” as a social error or faux pas. Its usage to refer to political misspeak probably began by courtesy or newspaper headline writers, whose work requires words of few letters. Of course, “lie” has even fewer letters than “gaffe,” but lies by politicians are not news. A “gaffe” is the opposite of a “lie”; it’s when a politician inadvertently tells the truth.


Sources:

American Heritage Dictionary, fifth edition, 2012, s. v. gaffe.

Dictionary of the Scots Language (Dictionar o the Scots Leid), 2004, s. v. gaff, n. v.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang, 2018, s. v. gaff, n.2.

Kinsley, Michael. “Mondale Tries Demagoguery on Mortgage Interest Issue.” Los Angeles Times, 15 May 1984, C5.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. gaffe, n., gaff, n.1, gaff, n.2, guffaw, n.

Vaux, James Hardy. A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language (1812). Project Gutenberg Australia, 2011.

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