Gaff vs Gaffe

Posted by: Loren Coleman on June 8th, 2011

Gaffe is a French word meaning “embarrassing mistake,” and should not bemixed up with gaff: a large hook.

Gaffe is defined as (n) a socially awkward or tactless act.

Gaff is defined as
(n) a sharp metal spike or spur that is fastened to the leg of a gamecock;
(n) a spar rising aft from a mast to support the head of a quadrilateral fore-and-aft sail; and
(n) an iron hook with a handle; used for landing large fish.

It is the last meaning of “gaff” that is used for items that are made to fool people studying cryptozoology.

The “gaff” of interest to us is the one that began as a gimmicked or rigged prop often used by magicians or illusionists to imitate sword swallowers. The evolution of “gaff” was them applied to a created “creature” such as a “FeeJee mermaid,” to pull people into the sideshow. The term “gaff” comes from the “gaff” fishing tool used to pull fish in; in sideshow terms, a “gaff” can be used at sideshows to “hook” or pull people into the sideshow.

Feejee Mermaid

The easiest pseudocryptozoological exhibition items to have, of course, are often the gaffs and hoaxes. Among those in most cabinets of curiosities are the Feejee mermaids and the furred trouts, both taxidermy fakes. I have my share.

Fur-Bearing Trout

I use them to let people know these objects are often shown as “almost real” specimens. Most honest sideshow owners displaying them often merely only ask “What is It?” or “Is it Real?” But slowly the drift has been, perhaps due to eBay, for people to present these items as cryptozoological, from “unknown animals.” For cryptozoologists, we need to be aware of this trend, and go beyond it.

We must document items, of course, such as the Crookston Bigfoot. (See also here.)  But we also have to travel into the world of mistakes and gaffs.

Mistakes? Yes. Let me say something briefly about the near-cryptozoological “specimens” that are not quite fakes. One-of-a-kind items, which may be authentic but not actually from a cryptid, do exist. For example, Dr. Geoff Swinney, Curator of Lower Vertebrates, Fish, Amphibians and Reptiles, National Museums of Scotland, is shown below examining the vertebrae of the Beast of Stronsay, from the carcass of the beast found on an Orkney island beach in 1808. Swinney, who is the resident cryptozoologist in his Scottish museum, did in 1987, confirm the vertebrae was from a basking shark, and not a Sea Serpent.

Geoff Swinney

But within fakery, gaffs (the hook to get people into the metaphorical carnival tent) are just that – not what they appear to be. There are various kinds of gaffs, including those made to appear like classic examples and those which follow the current but old taxidermy hoaxing models. The Feejee mermaids are a perfect example.

Feejee Mermaid

This Feejee Mermaid above is the original prop used in the movie P. T. Barnum, which was made to look like the 1866 specimen in Barnum’s American Museum. This object is now a permanent exhibit in the International Cryptozoology Museum.

Fiji Mermaid

The most current type of Feejee Mermaid gaff, however, are those made from legally obtained deceased animal parts mixed together.


The jackalope does not exist. Some people have thought otherwise.

Chupa Gaff

Do gaff makers have standards and ethics? You might be surprised. The item (above) was noted in my “Chupacabras: Mystery Solved?” posting and featured on Coast to Coast AM with George Noory’s site. Due to those discussions, in a radical professional move Doug Higley has recently written that he:

….might no longer be making ‘Chupacabras’ feeling that the fantasy concept had been abused and became more of unnecessary false claims than a fun ‘Unknown’ to ponder. The original idea was never to show the gaff ‘creatures’ claiming them to be ‘REAL!’ but to let the viewer make up their mind as to what IT was and to say only it was a strange ‘thing’ to be questioned and wondered over. It seems in at least one case the important Question Mark was dropped and Claims were made which I feel is not the proper way to to go…the entertainment aspect is diffused by the false claim. Most all the showmen/women ‘got it’ however and made a fun experience out of their shows…but like in any endeavor, there is always ‘one’ who’ll push the initial concept in an incorrect direction. The analogy to a ‘little sci-fi movie’ is a valid one in that Universal Studios doesn’t come right out on the poster and say “The Creature is Fake! It’s a man in a rubber suit!” They let the viewer experience the fun of suspending disbelief if only for a short time…To me, it’s all about the Illusion…but then isn’t everything?….My personal view is any show ‘Gaff’ I create should have a Question Mark attached otherwise it’s just a ‘Prop’ rather than a fun ‘mystery’ to be considered. – Doug Higley

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

21 Responses to “Gaff vs Gaffe”

  1. korollocke responds:

    You all fell for and still do for the greatest gaff of all time Patty. I’ve personally met the guy who wore the suit. Bill’s a big nice guy.

  2. flame821 responds:

    Doug Higley’s comment actually explains why there are so many of these. I always thought they were meant to fool/trick people into believing or paying money. But his correlation with the obvious fake suits of the 50-60 film monsters makes sense too. Its just fun to pretend and wonder…

  3. Redrose999 responds:

    Thank you for the post, my husband and I were talking about the word gaff, and I was struggling to figure out HOW to define it.


    Does he still have the suit? My husband and I have been discussing it from time to time. Post pictures of the suit, so we can put it to rest. 🙂 If the suit can do everything the films does, it should be very impressive, especially for the sixties.

  4. Dr Kaco responds:

    Indeed Redrose999!
    The skeptics ask…where are these alleged Bigfoot bones? But, if Bigfoot has been a hoax or gaff, where is the suit? Surely a pair of wood carved ‘Bigfoot Shoes’ can’t be the only ammo skeptics have?
    Let’s all keep an open mind and keep on keepin’ on for the truth! ;p

  5. flame821 responds:

    IF the PG film was faked and someone does have the authentic costume…I can’t even begin to imagine how much that would be worth. It would literally be the Holy Grail of BigFoot skeptics and shut down years of conjecture, research and tourist towns.

    But considering that, even with our technology, we STILL can’t make a suit that moves the way the one in the PG film moves, I’m guessing we’ll never see the oft reported but never documented suit.

  6. praetorian responds:


    Your friend must be an anatomical freak show as his knee joints are in the wrong place for a human.

    A human can more or less fake the walk. Arm extensions could help with the proportions. The inhuman placement of the knee joints, however, cannot be reconciled with a human walking in a suit. Nor could the ratio of the trunk to the lower extremities. Nor could the anatomically accurate movement of the musculature.

  7. TomRitchford responds:

    There’s actually yet another meaning to “gaff” and one that’s at least tangentially relevant to your work!

    For magicians (that is, magicians that do magic tricks, not “real” magicians), to “gaff” something means to alter some prop for your own nefarious needs and a “gaff” is a prop that has been altered in such a way.

    These days, the word has fallen slightly into disuse, except for the one very common case, the “Gaff Deck”, which is a regular deck of cards with a ton of special, weird cards put into it – blank cards, double backs, double faces, and funny cards – cards that are printed out of focus, with extra pips or inverted or even the “Tree of Hearts” (a joke that was as dumb 30 years ago when I first saw it as now…)

  8. TomRitchford responds:

    Urg, so much for MY reading skills!

    Now I have coffee things are better.

  9. Redrose999 responds:

    The problem with the PG film is you can’t prove or disprove it without showing evidence on both ends. What I would like, the chap who wore the suit, to come out with the suit, and reproduce the EXACT same film with the same conditions, camera, and angles. The suit would have to behave the same way. Someone’s word isn’t good enough. Why? Because the Patterson family tried to distance themselves from the film at one point and could have paid this gent to talk about it. Which puts them in an uncomfortable position and it puts the friend in an even more uncomfortable position, so no one could admit to any kind of truth without damaging their reputations.

    If he can’t present the suit then he needs to present the shop he got it from, and the make and model of the suit. As I recall he said it was just a standard ape costume he got from some store. So far, those kinds of suits well, stand out like a sore thumb really.

    Do I believe the film is real? No clue, but I haven’t seen any effective arguments against it. But have seen better arguments by folks like Jeff Meldrum that say it is real.

  10. Redrose999 responds:

    And I’m referring to an interview I saw some years ago when the fellow who said he was in the suite first announced it. If your friend is not the same person, please correct me.

  11. korollocke responds:

    These studios and people could do this with ease. Jim Henson studios, ILM, Rick Baker and the late great Stan Winston just to name a few off the of the top of my head. Bob Burns could have probably done it, Kogar was a cool suit back in day. I don’t know where you get these crazy anatomical measurements from about the knees placement and arms or muscle movement, a diluted tulpa type theory perhaps, it’s real and looks and moves that way because you say so?

    The way you all describe is physical form and movement it couldn’t walk upright. It would be impossible given skeletal structure and over all scaling; it if real would have to knuckle walk like a gorilla. if it could move at all, I can’t even begin to imagine how the tendons and ligament would work or attach with such crazy legs as you think you see.

    If it were real then why did Patterson debunk it before he died and distance himself from it for so many years beforehand? That’s the elephant in the room nobody wants to talk is it?

    Further more, wouldn’t it have filmed at the same area more than once or seen again with documented proof? Why hasn’t anyone else ever gotten such great footage with much better equipment and better expeditions? Things that make you go Hmmmm…

  12. Redrose999 responds:

    Well I can’t answer all of it but the muppets developed that specific technology in the early to mid seventies. In fact, it was invented during Empire strikes back. As for the other special effects stuff you mentioned, again, we’re talking late seventies and late 80s. Baker invented his own style of movie make up while making the American Werewolf in London. Most special effects folks will say those extensions were not used or invented until the 80s or so. You’re talking tech that DIDN’T exist. The planet of the apes only had rubber masks for their costumes and that were as advanced as it got because it was too expensive and the tech didn’t exist. Spandex and nylon suits for muscles didn’t exist then.

    The other stuff, I can’t argue with, which is why I’m skeptical on the issue, however, I can say, beyond a shadow of a doubt that the sum total of special effect in the early to mid sixties was mostly stop motion animation and blue screen effects NOT costumes.

    As for the Patterson thing, apparently what he said was also in question and open ended. It wasn’t a real confession. But I’m sure someone on this list knows more about it. I’m not into Bigfoot info, and know very little about it.

  13. praetorian responds:

    “I don’t know where you get these crazy anatomical measurements from about the knees placement and arms or muscle movement, a diluted tulpa type theory perhaps, it’s real and looks and moves that way because you say so?”


    No need to take my word for it. You might want to start with Dr. Jeff Meldrum’s “Sasquatch- Where Legend Meets Science”. Meldrum is a Professor of Anatomy and Anthropology with a background in vertebrate locomotion. His scientifically derived conclusion is that the subject of the Patterson film could not be a human in a suit.

  14. Dr Kaco responds:

    @Redrose999: The individual you are talking about that confessed to allegedly wearing the Patty suit is “Bob Hieronimous”. This transpired on an episode of National Geographic’s TV show – “Is it real-Bigfoot” I’m sure you can find it on youtube to check it out for yourself. As this man does walk with a similar gate as Patty, there was still NO SUIT provided in this “shocking” revelation.

  15. Redrose999 responds:

    Dr Kaco,

    thank you very much. I couldn’t recall where I saw it. The fact that he could do the walk was irrelevant without the suit. LOL and coming from a documentary, well, we all know how trust worthy they are as sources.


  16. Redrose999 responds:

    I was just talking to a costume maker about the PG film. Basically its a lot more complex than it looks. They’d have to outfit the BF guy in the field, Either by gluing individual hairs all over his body and build up latex muscles on his body and glue hair over it so it forms the humps and curves on to actual muscle so it moves with the body, that would need a trailer and would take hours to set up, especially if the costume process is like like one Rick Baker would design. Taken how remote the area is, it’s not likely to work out. Also, it would take a year of so to design the suit, with a studio, it’s not something you make in a garage. It would be expensive, and state of the art. Also they couldn’t fly the guy in, he wouldn’t be able to sweat, or go to the bathroom, or sit down likely. Now with that said, the artist in question, would have made millions off it if came out with it for the film industry. Which he didn’t, which honestly makes no sense. But there is her take on it understanding the tech of the time.

  17. korollocke responds:

    Horse feathers. I’ve seen better suits during my days as a performing human block head during my sideshow days (they really need to bring back sideshows en mass, kids are really missing out). Saw the ice man up close quite a few times both frozen and not frozen (mother of god did it stink!), from what I can tell it was a rock ape not a bigfoot or pendak. I’m quite shocked rock apes are a mystery animal, they are well known and plentiful; go figure. They usually can be seen sitting on rock faces and cliffs (hence the term “rock ape”.) looking like a group of hairy old men.

    Given that, I tell you Patty is bogus.

  18. Redrose999 responds:

    @ korollocke

    side show work? Awesome! Yes, well, I now understand your questioning. You must understand gaffs personally and up close. Yes, I do agree, we need to bring side shows back. Society needs to gain their sense of wonder again. Kids these days are too cynical they understand why one gets all excited over the obviously fake goat headed python. It’s about imagination, but than again, I think that is what this thread is about isn’t it?

    LOL I remember seeing an article on the MS iceman as a child. It scared the sheepdip out of me.

  19. korollocke responds:

    I used to take flak from the real freaks because I wasn’t a “true” freak just a gaff myself, skilled in pain tolerance(this served me well in the Army.) and body manipulation. I used to hammer nails into my face(wich I can still do.), sew buttons onto my flesh, eat glass, do a cool variation on the bed of nails where I would lay on it hold a cinder block on my chest and have an audience member smash the block with a sledge hammer. A few times I was the handler for moss haired girls and presenter/trainer for Spidora.

    My good friend Ken Rilling was the man in the erriely patty looking suit for the beautiful girl in the bikini (usually touted as a vegas show girl cursed by a an African prince she spurned, nothing like magic from the dark contienet.)turning into a gorilla bit( I did narrations for this a few times.). Through the use of mirrors it looked like the bathing beauty would have a slow Chaneyesque transformation into a savage gorilla, Ken would charge at the cage(wich would break away.) and the rubes scattered! Not a dry seat left in the tent! LOL!

    There’s still a couple 10 in 1 shows left but there just not the same and Jim rose is a bit too cheesey.

  20. Redrose999 responds:

    I’ve always been pretty amazed by that kind of pain control. Where did you perform?

    I remember seeing adds for that act on the NJ boardwalk when I was a teenager. I think it was in the 80s. In fact, my sister and her friends went to see the act. Your friend must have had an impressive suit! Did he make it? I’d love to see pictures! I am a rather poor costume designer, my art degree goes to building Halloween costumes for my kids. I tend to go to my friend Claudia, who is professional for help.

    I think we all look at the Patty film with different perspectives which is why there are so many different opinions on it.

  21. cwinters responds:

    I went to an oddities museum once… They had a feejee mermaid there, as well as all sorts of other things. It was really quite enjoyable; shame they aren’t more widespread.

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