In ordinary life, we know that the word “gaffe” means an inconvenient truth. If your SO asks “does this make me look fat” or “can I get away with a combover” the true answer is almost certainly a gaffe (if not, they wouldn’t have asked).

In politics, some avoidance of inconvenient truths is inevitable for much the same reasons. Ambitious upstarts have to say somethng along the lines of “I love and respect our leader” and patient leaders have to say “Colleague X is doing a great job” until the day the knife or axe is ready for use. In matters of this kind, no-one expects truthfulness.

But, as used by the MSM, the term “gaffe” means inconvenient speaking of the truth about policy questions. the latest instance is the statement by Queensland Liberal leader Bruce Flegg that recycled water is safe, and that, given the uncertainty of future rainfall, there is little choice but to go for recycling.

The first statement is supported by overwhelming evidence, and the second by any reasoned assessment of the situation. But because the Nationals are bidding for the support of the large segment of the public with irrational fears on the topic, and Labor is ducking the issue with proposals for a referendum, Flegg’s statment of the plain truth is a gaffe.

18 thoughts on “Gaffes

  1. The Macquarie Dictionary says that a gaffe is a “social blunder”.
    Collins adds “especially a tactless remark”.

  2. Interesting, isn’t it, how understandings of words differ even among educated people. Only
    yesterday I discovered that my understanding of “fissile” differed from that of my intelligent and educated interlocutor, who thought that it meant “volatile”. I wonder if this is more common than
    it used to be.

  3. JQ, I don’t share your linguistic intuitions, and neither the macquarie nor the OED does either. It might be that, as Gordon seems to imply, there is an idiolect in which “gaffe” is used in this way. But that’s not my impression. When there is a substantial idiolect population, meanings begin to shift and accusing each other of mistakes is out of place. But Gordon’s interlocutor was certainly plain wrong, and I suspect you are too.

  4. Interestingly, Wikipedia formerly agreed with me

    A gaffe is a verbal mistake made by a company or individual, usually in a social environment. The mistake comes from saying something that is true, but inappropriate.

    but this has been shifted to Wiktionary, which just gives “blunder”.

    Of the definitions cited by Redmond, I’d say Collins agrees with me and Macquarie with Neil (of course we could go meta and dispute what is meant by “tact” and “blunder”).

  5. Atypically leaving aside the opportunity for a truly pedantic discussion, is it ‘obvious’ that recycled water is the way to go? What about – especially in Queensland – diverting water from agriculture, applying water marketing rules and allowing for those who want their water unrecycled to pay for the privilege?

    Of course, a National supporting uniform water pricing WOULD be committing a gaffe, unlike insisting that city folk drink their own wastes.

  6. “What about – especially in Queensland – diverting water from agriculture, applying water marketing rules and allowing for those who want their water unrecycled to pay for the privilege?”

    The big problem is that there isn’t that much irrigated agriculture in the SEQ catchments. But I agree that the obvious step is to allow holders of irrigation licenses to sell them to urban suppliers.

  7. Bartleby states that the connotation of “gaffe” indicated by Pr Q is originally attributed to Michael Kinsley. “A gaffe is when a politician inadvertently lets slip an inconvenient truth” (Guardian 1991).

    Gaffes are not limited to politicians. Any candid social scientist must, as a professional obligation, always be making political gaffes. This is inevitable given the political nature of our world and the professional duty of scientists.

    We now live in a globalised (immigration, communication) world where diverse cultures are more frequently coming into contact. There is considerable inequality between cultures, at least by virtue of their ability to generate power and command respect. That means the majority of the worlds people will live in subordinate cultures.

    But all human beings are, more or less, status-conscious. They will therefore be aware of, and resent, their subordinate position.

    The polite thing to do would be to gloss over these inequities in silence. That is the genesis of political correctness.

    But social scientists are not paid to be polite. They are paid to be truthful.

    So most social scientists interested in global affairs must be continually making gaffes or else they are not doing their jobs. However most social scientists, like politicians, are worried about job security or looking good.

    So they prefer political correctness to professional correction. This is cowardice, but at least it is a nice kind of cowardice in a polite democratic society.

    “The power to face unpleasant facts”

    George Orwell

  8. I recall another Flegg-like inspiration for a frenzy of MSM gaffe-identification was Stephen Conroy’s truthful answer to a question from a schoolkid during the 2001 election campaign. When asked how a Labor government would pay for a particular initiative, Conroy responded that, like all initiatives, it could be funded either by diverting funds from other programs, or by raising taxes. This was seen as a reference to a ‘secret agenda’ to raise taxes.

  9. “….we know that the word “gaffeâ€? means an inconvenient truth”

    So an alternative title for Al Gore’s film is “Gaffe”? 🙂

  10. So an alternative title for Al Gore’s film is “Gaffe�?

    If this is so then Gore spoke a gaffe, while the Liberal party tried to use political correctness to maintain their line of argument for the last ten years. I suppose that explains this:,20867,20786761-601,00.html

    Couldn’t we then suggest that it’s really the Liberal voters who support their views with political correctness (as opposed to small L liberals)?

  11. In a political context (which of course does not necessarily equate with the real world), “gaffe” is a self-defined media term. It cannot be a gaffe unless the media says it is, because it is only a gaffe if it causes political damage, which is of course determined by the media.

    Flegge’s comment was a gaffe because it led to internal Coalition disputes and dissent and led the media to label him gaffe-prone and accident-prone. This would be the case whether he was wrong or right (and I agree with Prof Q that he definitely is) in what he said.

    In politics, a gaffe is not saying something which is true but also politically embarrassing or damaging. Rather, it is just saying something which the media determines is politically damaging, regardless of whether it is true or not (although if it is true, that adds to their delight). The Stephen Conroy ‘gaffe’ is a case in point. I happened to be sitting next to him when he said it – it was not only true it was self-evident, and it was barely noticed by anyone there until the government decided to give a particularly extreme spin to it later that day. Even then, it wouldn’t have been a gaffe except the the media happily accepted that spin and ran with full bore – cos gaffes are always fun of course, regardless of the truth.

    Beazley’s Rove gafge was a gaffe because it was wrong, not because it was an inconvenient truth.
    Bill Heffernan falsely accusing a High Court judge of trawling for teenage prostitutes was not a gaffe – not because it was false but because it did not cause political damage, or even public internal party ructions, only political controversy.

    Anyway, in regards to recycled water, the only reason that something so clearly safe and so obviously the way to go in South East Queensland is precisely because of the way this sort of bizarre media (and politician) driven ‘gaffe hunt’ prevents people from saying the bleeding obvious, in case they might be told they’ve gaffed. Bit like the Emperor’s New Clothes scenario really.

  12. I remember at one stage Gareth Evans conceded that the ALP’s ‘no tax increases’ policy didn’t mean that there might not be some circumstances – for instance simplification or whatever in which everyone’s tax in all situations couldn’t rise. This was nothing more than the truth. The headline in the paper was ‘Gareth Gaffe’. The treatment Steven Conroy got for saying something that was true and conceded but in different words is another example. Infuriating that the media coverage is so reactive and trivial. But there you go.

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