I recently mentioned a book called Mind The Gaffe, which is all about errors in English. It got me to thinking about the word gaffe and other related expressions. I set out to do some digging in my trusty dictionary and came up with a few surprises. The word gaffe means a social blunder and originates from French in the 19th century. It should not be confused with the word gaff, which has a variety of interesting meanings.
If you fish, then you probably use a sturdy pole with a strong hook to capture the biggest catch of your life. That’s called a gaff, and you’ll need it if you want to avoid tales about the one that got away. If you actually manage to land that fish, then gaff becomes a verb that shows how you hook it. Sailors know a gaff as a special boom to which a gaffsail is attached. Cockfighting is a favored pastime in some parts of the world, and in that context, gaff describes the spur that’s attached to a gamecock’s leg.
Gaff is also a popular slang word with several meanings. It can mean nonsense talk, cheat or hoax. If you’re British and you blow the gaff, then you reveal a secret, while Americans and Canadians who stand the gaff are able to take a bit of ribbing. Gaff was also an old British term for someone’s home, as well as a cheap theater or music hall in Victorian times.