Newt Gingrich and the gaffe: what's in a word?(Read article summary)
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
Where did the word ‚Äúgaffe‚ÄĚ come from? We wondered this the other day after watching Newt Gingrich explain yet again why he didn‚Äôt mean it when he called Rep. Paul Ryan‚Äôs Medicare proposal ‚Äúright-wing social engineering.‚ÄĚ
(Please ‚Äď no e-mails saying we‚Äôre picking on poor Mr. Gingrich. We‚Äôre pretty sure the GOP presidential hopeful himself would say he wishes he hadn‚Äôt blabbed so much about the Ryan plan in the first place.)
Anyway, our trusty American Heritage Dictionary says ‚Äúgaffe‚ÄĚ comes from an old French word for ‚Äúhook.‚ÄĚ The word ‚Äúgaff,‚ÄĚ without the ‚Äúe,‚ÄĚ is still used in this context: It refers to an iron hook used to land fish.
That leads us to the political definition of ‚Äúgaffe‚ÄĚ by the great wordsmith William Safire.
‚ÄúTo a politician ‚Äď even one who can ‚Äėstand the gaff‚Äô or abuse ‚Äď it‚Äôs the dread mistake that pierces the psyche like the angler‚Äôs sharp hook,‚ÄĚ wrote Mr. Safire in a 2008 New York Times Magazine column.
Gingrich‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúcling to guns or religion,‚ÄĚ it was a gaffe, too. In some places, he hasn‚Äôt recovered from that one yet.
Then there‚Äôs ‚Äúblunder,‚ÄĚ which is worse than ‚Äúgaffe,‚ÄĚ according to Safire. A blunder (probably from the Old Swedish ‚Äúblundra,‚ÄĚ to ‚Äúhave one‚Äôs eyes closed,‚ÄĚ he says) is a strategic misstep that jeopardizes one‚Äôs entire enterprise. For Richard Nixon, Watergate was not just a gaffe, or even a crime: It was a blunder that ended his presidency.
We‚Äôll end with a bonus pundit tip. In Washington, many try to look sage by quoting another great journalist, Michael Kinsley, on this subject. ‚ÄúA gaffe ... is when a politician tells the truth,‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôt take a position ‚Äď you can discuss it among yourselves.