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Give him the hook

Maybe I should write something about Mitt Romney and the gaffe.

First of all, what the hell is a gaffe, anyway? And why does it have a silent e on the end? What’s wrong with a good old-fashioned gaff? What are we, Frenchmen?

Well, gaffe comes from the French, who evidently use it more or less the way we do, as (according to the OED an instance of clumsy stupidity. I think it landed here in the bed created for it by the e-less gaff as in blow the gaff, to reveal a secret, or stand the gaff, to, as the OED puts it, receive severe criticism. It’s possible that stand the gaff and blow the gaff are not actually connected, except in the sense that gaff was loud and course talk, or possibly merry talk, all the same as guff or gab.

Anyway, I bring up stand the gaff to point out that a gaffe, properly speaking, is not just a verbal blunder as one might think from a narrow definition, but anything that causes a strong negative reaction as if it were a verbal blunder. Taegan Goddard’s definition over at his political dictionary requires that it causes embarrassment, although he also requires that it be an unintentional statement, which I think is not necessarily the case. Was it a gaffe when Our Only Vice-President said that the Affordable Care Act was a big fucking deal? Yes. Was it unintentional? Well, he didn’t mean for everybody to hear it, so I suppose it wasn’t intentional in that sense, but was what he meant to say, and it was true, besides. Was it a gaffe when Senator McCain said that the fundamentals of the economy were sound? Yes. But it was completely intentional. Was it a gaffe when Barack Obama said he had visited fifty-seven states? No, because nobody heard about it or cared. Was it a gaffe when Jessica Simpson told the Secretary of the Interior that she liked the way Secretary Norton had decorated the White House? Yes and no; it certainly wasn’t unintentional, exactly, and it’s hard to believe that she could have been embarrassed at that stage, but people did react to it with mockery and scorn.

This is why I agree with the first of Greg Marx’s Three Thoughts: We need a better typology of “gaffes”. As he points out, there’s a big difference between a gaffe such as I like being able to fire people, where the media take a half-sentence out of context, a gaffe such as I’m not concerned about the very poor, where the wording accidentally says something the speaker did not intend to say, and a gaffe such as Don’t try and stop the foreclosure process; let it run its course and hit the bottom, where he conveys his meaning quite accurately, but that communication turns out to be embarrassingly unpopular.

When Our Only President, back before, said that people in the small towns of the industrial region “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”, it was clearly a gaffe. When he said that he had visited fifty-seven states, that was a gaffe. It would be helpful, in the future, to know if we’re talking about something closer to the former than the latter.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

I was all set to object to the 3rd paragraph's "Was it a gaffe when Barack Obama said he had visited fifty-seven states? No, because nobody heard about it or cared" when I got to the last graf and read "When he said that he had visited fifty-seven states, that was a gaffe."
Did I miss something that tells me which of these you're actually stating?


Whoops! The second one--it was a gaffe. I was trying out various quotes in that third paragraphs as examples of things that were gaffes but weren't, if you know what I mean. I put the fifty-seven states one in, didn't like it there, put it in the last paragraph, and forgot to go back and put in a better example in the third.

Or… perhaps I was deliberately introducing an instance of clumsy stupidity as a meta-commentary on the whole gaffe issue. Yeah, that was it.

Thanks,
-V.


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