3

gaffe (n.)
"blunder," 1909,
perhaps from French gaffe "clumsy remark,"
originally "boat hook," from Middle French gaffe (15c.),
from Old Provençal gafar "to seize,"
probably from a Germanic source, from Proto-Germanic *gaf-,
which is perhaps from PIE root *kap- "to grasp."
[1.] Sense connection between the hook and the blunder is obscure; [2.] the gaff was used to land big fish.
Or the Modern English word might derive from British slang verb gaff "to cheat, trick" (1893); or gaff "criticism" (1896), from Scottish dialect sense of "loud, rude talk" (see gaff (n.2)).

Despite the obscurity, what might explain 1?

Per 2, hooking (or catching) fish is difficult, and so can be blundered; but the semantic shift still appears too chasmal or remote. I don't believe how 'hook' (with an inanimate, neutral connotation) can be shifted to 'blunder' (with an animate, negative connotation).

  • 1
    Probably has something to do with Swedish. – AmE speaker Jun 28 '17 at 6:18
  • I won't be able to find it on a patchy mobile connection but I recall reading something about catching someone (oneself?) on a boat hook. That would be a blunder. I'll try to remember to have a look later if no one gets there first. – Chris H Jun 28 '17 at 6:46
  • I must have misremembered, but I've answered with what I've found. – Chris H Jun 28 '17 at 8:58
1

It looks like the sense of blunder came from French, so we have to look to French etymology. Unfortunately as we often see in English, nautical language is rich, and often unwritten and poorly documented. So we may never get a perfect answer.

One source (and not a great one) I've found says it's uncertain, but speculates:

L'origine est assez douteuse, possiblement à rapprocher du crochet utilisé par les marins pour accrocher quelque chose et dont on a souvent besoin quand on a commis une bévue (objet tombé à la mer, accostage loupé...).

The origin is rather doubtful, possibly close to the hook used by sailors to hook something and which is often needed when one has committed a blunder (dropped something overboard, missed landing...).

Another source speculates:

Le sens figuré du mot gaffe, que nous connaissons tous à travers l’expression faire une gaffe (= maladresse) elle-même attestée depuis le Larousse de 1872, possède la même origine, liée au langage des matelots. La raison possible en est que l’on peut tirer au lieu de pousser (ou inversement) en utilisant mal cet outil au maniement visiblement assez difficile, bref se tromper.

The figurative meaning of the word gaffe, which we all know through the expression of a blunder) itself attested since the Larousse of 1872, has the same origin, linked to the language of the sailors. The possible reason is that one can pull instead of pushing (or vice versa) by misusing this tool visibly difficult enough, in short be mistaken.

The 1872 edition of Larousse (dictionary) is online and searchable. It has:

Dans l'argot des marins, Faire une GAFFE, Faire une sottise

In the langauge of sailors, make a GAFFE, Make a blunder [sotisse these days is often translated as stupidity]

So it definitely comes from a figurative use of the nautical term. The slightly later Dictionnaire étymologique de patois lyonnais, Tisseur 1887 adds nothing but confirmation.

At this point it's worth noting that (as opposed to faire une gaffe) faire gaffe has almost the opposite meaning -- pay attention. Among other figurative uses Avaler sa gaffe (to swallow one's gaff) is to die.

Modern Larousse isn't much help -- it just says the sense of blunder derives from the verb meaning to hook a fish with a gaffe. But this suggests something to me: French uses poisson (fish) figuratively in poisson d'Avril (April fools) to mean being caught out (or having a paper fish stuck to one's back). This origin of this is "uncertain" wiktionary (though there's some speculation about the sign of Pisces which now ends on March 20th but calendars have changed).

(all translations machine-assisted; my French isn't great)

  • I'm not very satisfied with this, but it was worth posting even if only to help people with better French (and better resources) take it further. – Chris H Jun 28 '17 at 8:58

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