Newt Gingrich and the gaffe: what's in a word?

Gaffe, from the French for 'hook,' has been a barb in the side of Newt Gingrich, Barack Obama, and plenty of other politicians.

Chris Usher/CBS News Photo/AP Photo
In this photo provided by CBS News, former House Speaker and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich gestures outside the studios for CBS-TV's "Face the Nation," May 22 in Washington DC.

Where did the word “gaffe” come from? We wondered this the other day after watching Newt Gingrich explain yet again why he didn’t mean it when he called Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposal “right-wing social engineering.”

(Please – no e-mails saying we’re picking on poor Mr. Gingrich. We’re pretty sure the GOP presidential hopeful himself would say he wishes he hadn’t blabbed so much about the Ryan plan in the first place.)

Anyway, our trusty American Heritage Dictionary says “gaffe” comes from an old French word for “hook.” The word “gaff,” without the “e,” is still used in this context: It refers to an iron hook used to land fish.

That leads us to the political definition of “gaffe” by the great wordsmith William Safire.

“To a politician – even one who can ‘stand the gaff’ or abuse – it’s the dread mistake that pierces the psyche like the angler’s sharp hook,” wrote Mr. Safire in a 2008 New York Times Magazine column.

Gingrich’s statement surely qualifies under that characterization. You think he wanted to spend days talking about whether turning Medicare into a voucherlike program is too big a jump? When then-candidate Barack Obama said that people in rural America “cling to guns or religion,” it was a gaffe, too. In some places, he hasn’t recovered from that one yet.

Safire distinguishes “gaffe” from the less-serious “fluff.” A fluff is a pure mistake, as when a barnstorming candidate says he’s glad to be in Iowa when he’s really in New Hampshire.

Then there’s “blunder,” which is worse than “gaffe,” according to Safire. A blunder (probably from the Old Swedish “blundra,” to “have one’s eyes closed,” he says) is a strategic misstep that jeopardizes one’s entire enterprise. For Richard Nixon, Watergate was not just a gaffe, or even a crime: It was a blunder that ended his presidency.

We’ll end with a bonus pundit tip. In Washington, many try to look sage by quoting another great journalist, Michael Kinsley, on this subject. “A gaffe ... is when a politician tells the truth,” Mr. Kinsley once wrote.

Do you think Gingrich was telling the truth, or at least what he perceived to be the truth, with his original Ryan comments? We won’t take a position – you can discuss it among yourselves.

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