We are some way into what seems to be another interminable football season where outrageously overpaid “stars” hog our TV screens and back pages of our newspapers. Invariably when said “stars” are able to string a couple of words together in the always illuminating post-match interview, there is a reference to the gaffer, the manager or the boss. Football seems to be one of the last industries in which this quaint term for the person in charge is used but where did it come from?
The earliest recorded reference to the noun was, according to etymologists, around 1565 to 1675. It was used as a term of respect, employed by country folk to refer to their elders and betters, someone to whom due deference had to be accorded on account of their experience or position in the community. It appears simply to have been a contraction of either godfather or grandfather, or both. It is comparable to gammer, a noun to describe an old woman, which was a contraction of godmother or grandmother and first appeared around the same time. Unlike gaffer, though, gammer sank into obscurity, perhaps only to re-emerge when the first female professional football manager is appointed.
As time moved on, its meaning broadened to indicate an old man, irrespective of status and prestige, particularly an old rustic, with a slightly patronising, if not pejorative, side to it. By 1841 it was being applied to the head of a group of labourers or what we might term the foreman, again showing that it was being used as a mark of respect or at least an acknowledgement of rank or position. Our noun appears in the English translation of Honore Balzac’s Two Poets, the original published in 1837, with the sense that the gaffer is the boss or leader of a group; “He had dragged the chain these fifty years, he would not wear it another hour, tomorrow his son should be the gaffer.” And it has kept that sense to this day.
If you stay long enough in a cinema and have eyesight sharp enough to make sense of the credits – I fail to qualify on either count – you will see that someone occupied the position of gaffer. The gaffer in the film industry is the head electrician and their responsibilities include the execution and, occasionally, design of the lighting plan for a film. The pre-eminence of the position amongst the techies may have earned it the title of gaffer, adopting the sense of the noun as it has developed over the centuries. However, it may also have a different origin, reflecting the fact that overhead equipment was moved in the early days using a gaff, a handle or pole with a hook on the end. I think this is probably where it came from in this particular context.
The term gaffer as a term in the movie business first appeared in print in 1929 in Mary Eunice Macarthy’s The Hands of Hollywood, seven years earlier than the first citation attested in the Oxford English Dictionary. The gaffer’s assistant is known as the best boy, irrespective of sex.
And just to finish off our consideration of the term gaffer, the Irish, to illustrate their contrariness, use it to describe a youngster, usually male, while in glass blowing circles, the gaffer is the master blower, responsible for shaping the glass.