Get a grip, Foley.

Dear Word Detective: When football players in England are speaking of their coach they refer to them as “gaffer.” I’m an American who just doesn’t understand English slang sometimes. — J.C.D.

Welcome to the club. Personally, I think the Brits are being inscrutable on purpose. I suspect that at some point, maybe back in the 16th century, their government tourism ministry got the bright idea of inventing a range of “quaint” but nonsensical locutions for gaffer08.pnginnkeepers and the like, designed to charm tourists (and, more importantly, to befuddle them so they wouldn’t whine for cold drinks and warm toast). Unfortunately, things got out of control and the frankenwords spread like kudzu until even small children were calling each other “guv’nor” and shrieking “Bob’s your uncle!” at anyone who looked even vaguely American.

In the case of “gaffer,” the word seems to have spread to Hollywood, where you’ll find the term listed in the credits of most motion pictures, up there in tiny type along with such bizarre job titles as “best boy,” “Foley artist” and “key grip.” It’s possible, of course, that those are all just fake jobs for the producer’s feckless nephews, but the whole question cries out for a congressional inquest.

While we’re waiting, I can say that “gaffer” first appeared in English back in the 16th century (aha!), applied as a term of respect among country dwellers to an elderly man, especially one accorded deference due to his experience or position within the community. “Gaffer” seems to have arisen as simply a contraction of “godfather” (or “grandfather”), the female equivalent being “gammer” (from “godmother” or “grandmother”). The use of “gaffer” broadened over time to include any older rustic male, and, by the 19th century, was being used as an informal title for the supervisor of a work crew, what we would call today a “foreman.” This use was adopted by the movie industry, which conferred the title of “gaffer” on the chief electrician on a film crew, a use which first appeared in print in the 1930s. The use of “gaffer” for the coach of a team invokes both this sense of “person in charge” and the earlier meaning of “respected older man.”

As for those other odd terms, the “best boy” on a film crew is the principal assistant to the “gaffer,” and these days may well be a woman. The “Foley artist” is the person in charge of sound effects, and the title is capitalized because it refers to an early master of the craft, Jack Foley. The “key grip” is the chief “grip,” in charge of scene rigging and sometimes the mechanical aspects of lighting. The term “grip,” which dates to the 1880s, originally referred to the fact that stagehands had to “grip” and shove heavy scenery into place between the acts of a play.

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