In colloquial British English gaffer means a foreman, and is used as a synonym for "boss". In the UK, the term is also commonly used to refer to sports coaches (football, rugby, etc.).
The term is also sometimes used colloquially to refer to an old man, an elderly rustic. The word is probably a shortening of "godfather", with "ga" from association with "grandfather". The female equivalent was "gammer", which came to colloquially refer to an old lady or gossip.
In 16th century English a "gaffer" was a man who was the head of any organized group of labourers. In 16th and 17th century rural England it was used as a title slightly inferior to "Master", similar to "Goodman", and was not confined to elderly men. The chorus of a famous Australian shearer's song, The Backblocks' Shearer (also known as Widgegoeera Joe), written by W. Tully at Nimidgee, NSW (c.1900), refers to a gaffer:
- Hurrah, me boys, my shears are set,
- I feel both fit and well;
- Tomorrow you’ll find me at my pen
- When the gaffer rings the bell.
- With Hayden's patent thumb guards fixed
- And both my blades pulled back;
- Tomorrow I go with my sardine blow
- For a century or the sack!
- In glassblowing, a gaffer is the central figure in the creation of a piece of art. For example, At the Corning Glass Works in Corning, New York, a gaffer is a skilled artisan who blows through a long tube to shape molten glass into a variety of useful and/or artistic objects. A business district of Corning has been named "The Gaffer District" in honor of these artisans.
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