A correspondent writes: “I’ve been looking into the word ‘gaffle.’ It’s used in the Bay Area to mean to steal, to scam, or to arrest, but it doesn’t look anything like most of our slang. With the aid of Google, I managed to find the world defined in a few dictionaries, but they all attributed it to the North-East…” He quotes a number of books saying things like “Unique to Maine” and “Used chiefly in northern New England”; I looked it up in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang and found two definitions: 1. “Esp. Maine. to seize; take hold of, esp. for oneself; (hence) to steal. Also gaffle onto” (first cite 1900), and 2. Und. to take into custody, apprehend” (from 1954). My correspondent says: “I’m really curious about the current distribution of this word (I can’t believe it’s known only in rural New England and urban California) and what definitions other people use and have heard,” so I pass along the query to you, Varied Reader. Do you know this word, and in what part of the country have you heard it?


  1. Ooh, I love this word! I’m from suburban Boston, and mostly heard it from my teenage peers in the 90s. (I moved to Maine for a few years later, and never heard it there.) I actually always thought of it as hip-hop slang, and some quick Googling seems to confirm it has a (minor) place.

  2. Earthtopus says

    Born in northern Vermont, have lived in Santa Cruz for the last five years.
    I never heard it growing up in VT but have heard it since I moved out west. My own anecdotal evidence leads me to believe it’s a coastal New England thing.

  3. Trond Engen says

    Scandinavian gaffel means “fork”, and the verb gafle means “grab (with a fork), eat greedily”. I don’t mean to say it’s a borrowing from Scandinavian, but they might share the origin in Low German/Dutch.

  4. Could it be related to a gaff net?

  5. I’ve never heard it… and that sounds like a *really weird* distribution. What happened to the entire rest of the country?

  6. Scandinavian gaffel means “fork”, and the verb gafle means “grab (with a fork), eat greedily”.
    The German for fork is Gabel. Aufgabeln, apart from “pick up with a fork”, generally means to catch or pick up something or someone. For instance, a policeman might say about a runaway: Ich habe ihn im Einkaufszentrum aufgegabelt.
    Gaffel is a dialect word for a pitchfork with two tines. The word (but perhaps not its meaning) is generally known in the Rhineland from the beer brand Gaffel Kölsch. As an aside, I learned from a linked article there that for a long time in Cologne, starting in 1396, there were guilds called Gaffeln (singular Gaffel). The article says the name derives from the two-tined fork that was used as a classy eating implement at formal dinners for groups of people. For the social functions of forks, knives and spoons over the centuries, see Nobert Elias, On the Process of Civilization.

  7. I should be more precise: aufgabeln means to spear something with a fork and then pick it up, not just “to pick up with a fork”, say by sliding peas onto it. Unlike Scandavian gafle, aufgabeln does not have the sense of “eat greedily”. Used in the right context that would be (auf)schaufeln, “to shovel it in”, which otherwise merely means “to shovel (up)”.
    More delightful cutlery idioms: ears, particularly big ones, are “spoons” (Löffel). To box someone’s ears (smack him up side the head) is ihm eine löffeln, “to give him one on the spoons”.

  8. A gaff can be a long pole with a hook on the end. Used at sea for grabbing hold of things in the water. Can also be a verb.
    All the citations come from coastal areas where gaffs would be well-known tools.
    I’ve also heard “snaffle” meaning to grab hold of. Snaffle is also a kind of bit for horses’ bridles, but I don’t see why there would be a relationship.

  9. “I’ve also heard “snaffle” meaning to grab hold of.” It certainly did in Scotland in the 50s, sometimes with the implication of doing so before anyone else could, or doing it on the sly.

  10. More delightful cutlery idioms: ears, particularly big ones, are “spoons” (Löffel)
    Yiddish Kochlöffel (cooking spoon) is also used to mean a busybody who stirs things up for no good reason.

  11. Irresistible to mention: an adroitly taken slip catch would be said to have been “snaffled”. But if you dropped the catch, you were said to have “maffled” it.

  12. Does the HDAS give any idea about the origin?
    Gaffhooks sound relevant.
    In sailing there are gaff rigs, maybe nothing to do with gaffhooks. Then there’s to make a gaffe. And to blow the gaff on someone. In Hollywood a gaffer is an electrician. In the UK a gaffer is an old codger. And somewhere in the back of mind are waffles, and their close kin gaufrettes.

  13. In Welsh ‘gafael’ is: to hold, to grip, to grasp.
    While a fork, barb, spear, dart is: ‘gaflach’.
    ‘gafaelfach’ = grappling-hook, barb. And there’s a salmon fishing ‘gaff’ connection with: gaflaw – forked; kind of salmon. gaflaweg – salmon net.

  14. john robbart says

    I live in Northern NH and have never heard the word. We’re in the mountains. Maybe it is coastal and related to the fishing industry. Isn’t there a fishing industry out of Sausalito or somewhere in the Bay area? How could it not have made it up and down the coast? Do the New England fishermen have some historical connection with the Bay area fishing but not elsewhere on the W coast??

  15. “In the UK a gaffer is an old codger”: it can also mean The Boss.

  16. The word occurs in an Eminem song, Guilty Conscience, in his 1999 album. “Go in, gaffle the money, run to one of your aunt’s cribs.”

  17. The Boss? Bruce Springsteen?

  18. Doing a search of rap lyrics, you can see that it’s used most commonly by West Coast artists, either from the Bay (Spice 1, RBL Posse, Luniz, E-40, Dru Down, 2Pac, Potna Deauce) or Los Angelos (Cypress Hill, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Compton’s Most Wanted, Mack 10, downset, WC, Daz Dillinger, King Tee, Above the Law) with only three uses from New York artists that I could find (Jay-Z, Redman, and Aesop Rock, although he has a connection to the Bay too) and a smidgeon of uses by Southern or Midwestern rappers. So Hip Hop may have popularized the term somewhat, but it’s still solidly rooted in the West Coast, and there still isn’t any explanation for how it got here that makes much sense to me.
    I guess it could have some connection to the fishing industry, but if so there’s little record of it. Google Books has this to say
    “Did you ever hear of gaffling fish? It’s sorting them into grades.” From something enigmatically called Preview, Volumes 1-23
    “A Scottish gillie was invited by the laird to take a pull at his flask after gaffling the first fish of the day.” From The Railroad Trainman
    Both uses don’t seem common enough to give birth to the slang use, though.

  19. Apparently William Vollmann used it in “Royal Family,” set in San Francisco. I hope it’s a good book, ’cause I love to read our dialect in print.

  20. A San Francisco – New England connection doesn’t seem at all odd to me…but a youthful, hip-hop one does.
    Older San Franciscans–I think mostly octogenarians now–are known for having a “New England” accent that was once common in The City.
    San Francisco did once have a thriving fishing industry; one of its major tourist attractions is the old “Fisherman’s Wharf.” I don’t know how long it’s been since there were fishing boats there, but I believe there are still a few fishermen based in The City. And California fishermen do use gaff hooks.
    But “gaffle” I’ve never heard. But then again, I’m not San Franciscan, nor am I young.

  21. The California-New England connection goes back to the Gold Rush. New Englanders and New York (state) people predominated in the American population.
    The word we used for a fish hook was “gaff’, for pulling in a salmon or something large. BTW the fishing community in SF is probably not a source unless the word is Sicilian in origin, or Portuguese in the rest of the Bay Area and coast.
    OTOH “snaffle” in California means to foul a line or get a rope tangled – “You’ve got your lines snaffled.”

  22. Jason McKinnon says

    I heard this a lot while hanging in the hippie acid head culture during the early 90’s.

  23. OTOH “snaffle” in California means to foul a line or get a rope tangled – “You’ve got your lines snaffled.”
    In Scotland the verb for that was “fankle”.

  24. dearieme, I like “fankle”. It reminds me of “fangeld” as in “new-fangled” which always gave me the sense of something rigged together in a frantic or clumsy way, like a big tangle of something.
    I wonder if it’s related to those etyma in German and Swedish that have to do with being captured, imprisoned, etc.

  25. The OED lists snaffle as meaning both arrest and steal in 19th century slang, so it really does seem to be a very similar word.

  26. In sailing there are gaff rigs, maybe nothing to do with gaffhooks.
    Part of a gaff rig is a fork-ended pole used to hold up the sail – so it’s very much related to gaff hooks.
    Butt “gaffer” meaning the old man, the boss, the foreman, the head electrician etc. is, I am pretty sure, just baby-talk for “grandfather” – because there’s also “gammer” meaning “old woman”.
    “A Scottish gillie was invited by the laird to take a pull at his flask after gaffling the first fish of the day.”
    Almost certainly a typo for “gaffing” I would have thought.

  27. JD – I ain’t never got gaffled like that, I used ta do da gafflin….Mac-Donalds was my spot.

    Ice Cube – What’d ja used ta do?

    JD – Jack dem motherfuckers for dem Nissan Trucks. Right in da drive through. Nigga get your mother fucking food, leave it in da car. Nigga get out!

    “You Can’t Fade Me”, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Ice Cube, 1990


    go to 4:40

    Pretty funny, short skit using Gaffle in west coast rap scene in the 90s. Sounds pretty established to me.

  29. Garpu is a Malay word for fork, said to be from the Portuguese Garfo from the Latin Graphium. Is that a possible common root for gaffle?

  30. We use this word a lot in PEI so I thought it must be an old Celtic word since most of our slang is!

  31. Roy nelson says

    Ok …folks the word in most cases means to ” have aquired ” mostly through illegal means. Blackmarket theft by a Gaffler . The word is broke down quite simply. GAFF is a steel hook use to plummet into a fish yarding it into the boat after reeling it in close enough. g- AFFLE Comes from BAFFLing police while out gaffling. ” Hey i heard Roach went to gaffle a couple of bikes with some lame gaffler name Itchy. They got caught i guess gaffling isn’t what it used to be”.

  32. thilo kaffenberger says

    “Gaffen” means in old German dialect lanugage “to look out for something”. Gaffling could be a “watchman”.

  33. David Marjanović says

    Gaffen means to stand there and gaze. It’s quite pejorative; nowadays it’s mostly used of people who stand around an accident in rapt attention and don’t let the ambulance through.

    In French, fais gaffe is colloquial for fais attention, “pay attention, be careful”.

  34. In English, gawk or (American?) rubberneck are pretty close to German gaffen.

  35. PlasticPaddy says

    Not to comment again out of line on wachten, but the gaffe in faire gaffe is ultimately from Frankish *wakhton.

  36. David Marjanović says

    Huh, interesting.

  37. Gaffen and its cognates are common Germanic, but it is interesting that both gaffen and English gape* have both taken on meanings related to staring. The Proto-Indo-European root was apparently ghieh, meaning “yawn; gape; be open” (as the mouth of someone staring in shock).

    * Gap is the regular form, while the doublet partner gape was probably influenced by the Norse form gapa.

  38. Porcupine says

    Im from California, southern coast. I grew up saying, hearing this. It means to steal grift take.

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